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The Bulls have been bad in the clutch, and Zach LaVine is ‘leading’ that problem

DDR or nothing

Chicago Bulls v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Bulls, this season in total, have scored 2946 points, and given up 2945. Despite that literally-neutral point differential, sees their overall record at a much lower 11-15.

Part of this is statistical noise, and these totals are undoubtedly still fluctuating this deep into the season considering the 144 the put up against the Luka-less Mavs last week. I also think - but won’t bother yet to research - that a lot of these close games are after ‘comebacks’ that are caused by the opponent screwing around and the Bulls using up a lot of energy where there’s little left for the final 5 minutes.

But a huge part of the poor record is due to bad clutch play:

The defeat [against the Hawks] drops the Bulls to 11-15 on the season and 3-10 in “clutch” contests, defined by NBA.com as games that fall within a five-point margin with five minutes or less to play — a statistic that is beginning to define the season.

Some of that is pretty natural regression by DeMar DeRozan, who led the Bulls to several improbable victories and had their clutch record at 4th in the NBA at a 25-16 mark. DeRozan individually had the second-most clutch points in the entire league, shooting 53.5% from the field (including 2-4 from three...you may remember those two makes) and generating 71 FTAs in 129.5 minutes. This season, DeRozan still leads the league in clutch points but on only 44.2% shooting (no threes) and has 5 turnovers in 59.4 minutes after 6 TOs all of last season in these situations.

We all know DeRozan has elevated above criticism (somewhat serious on that statement) and maybe that’s part of the reason it’s now more noticeable that Zach LaVine has stunk in the clutch.

LaVine has stunk for a lot of this season but has improved a bit, putting up better scoring games in his last 4 starting with his 41 point outburst in Sacramento. Even his make percentage at the rim is looking a bit better, though still showing a long way to go to regain his pre-latest-knee-injury output.

But in these clutch situations, he has been bad. Across 44.8 minutes, LaVine has just 17 points on 6/25 shooting, going 2/16 from three and just 3 FTAs, where just 2 of them were on a ‘take foul’ in the win over the Wizards.

He also just has 3 assists to 2 turnovers. I will start with this good one against the Wizards where he re-posted Vuc instead of trying to launch a three against a closing-out Porzingis:

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In that Wizards game, it looked like the worse team (that’s them, the Wiz) was determined to lose. If you recall, it was LaVine who busted open the lead with three consecutive three-pointers in the 4th quarter...but that was not (NBA-defined) clutch time! When it got under 5 minutes, it still felt uneasy every time the Bulls did something besides just give the ball to DeRozan.

The Wizards knew this too, and trapped DeRozan and daring Zach to beat them, which he did not:

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LaVine also missed a three, though it was a ‘good play’ with him free off a screen and in rhythm.

It’s almost like the 5 minute mark signals LaVine to start messing up, as at 4:55 remaining in regulation against the Hawks he got a turnover after elbowing his defender in the face.

He then had this and-one (though kind of a weak foul call, we’ll take it!) at the rim, but another attempt at the rim a minute and a half later was blocked, and he didn’t attempt a shot the final 2:30 in regulation.

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Then in overtime, Zach did have a dunk against a blown rotation by the Hawks, but unfortunately went 0-3 from distance:

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The first attempt was somewhat defensible, even early in the shot clock as it was, since he was in rhythm and open.

But maybe this is a byproduct of LaVine’s struggles finishing at the rim. Especially in these clutch situations when the defenses are more locked in, he doesn’t have confidence in his ability to score inside so he is just defaulting to launching. And this season, so far, that has left him in the clutch as well (again: 2/16 from three in the clutch this year).

And even before injury, LaVine showed deficiencies in his decisionmaking, which is obviously even more important in these situations. Part of that manifests in turnovers, but it could also be shot selection, including when to not take a shot at all and just give the ball back to DeMar. That still-lagging attribute of LaVine’s game isn’t reason he shouldn’t have gotten a max contract, but it does cap his overall growth as a player and the team’s ceiling if your 2nd option is deferential at best and harmful at worst in the clutch. It also leads to a bad season record.