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Zach LaVine is playing hurt, and playing badly in his playoffs debut

can’t seem to adjust to his physical limitations

NBA: APR 24 Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs - Bucks at Bulls Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Zach LaVine waited 8 seasons to get to the playoffs. Unfortunately, in his postseason debut he has not played well at all. In four games, just 19.3 points per game on 55.3% True Shooting at a 23.5% Usage Rate, all numbers down from his past two regular seasons where he broke out as one of the elite scorers in the NBA. His turnover percentage against the Bucks is higher than any season since his rookie year.

That includes getting blocked a lot. Anecdotally it seems to be happening way more than usual, NBA dot com stats say it’s happened 5 times this series so 1.3 times per game, and that is indeed higher than the 0.9 times per game it occurred in the regular season.

It just doesn’t look like he has any burst or lift when getting in the lane anymore.

Indeed, LaVine is at 62.5% from 0-3 feet this series, versus 70% in the regular season.

Obvious factors are at play: he’s facing a huge defense, with the Bucks starting Giannis, Lopez, and Portis with a strategy of basically daring the Bulls to make 3 pointers.

And, as we all know: he has a knee injury! LaVine said as early as March that he was just not going to be 100% the rest of the year and was playing through pain. There was hope that the rest days before the playoffs (ahem: there should’ve been more of those) would have a rejuvenating effect, but if there was one it wore off with the every-other-day schedule in Chicago.

It’s apparent in these drives, his shuffle-walk up and down the court, and at the end of Game Three he was literally bending over and rubbing the thing.

This is all very bad. There are some adjustments that could be made though to try and compensate. A major one would be to amp up his three-point attempts. Even at half-speed (or whatever calibration you wish to diagnose), LaVine is an excellent three point shooter, both spotting up and off the dribble. He started Game Four as such with a first quarter scoring binge.

In this series, LaVine has had 38.1% of his shot attempts come from long distance. That is a bit lower than the last two regular seasons (both over 40%), where instead it needs to be way higher. Yes, while Zach’s drives are putting some pressure on the defense and he did have 13 assists in Game Four, but he is just not effective in the paint and it’s feeding into what the Bucks want to do defensively. This puts a ton of (even more) workload on DeMar DeRozan to try and activate the Bucks into defensive rotations and the Bulls simply do not have many good players, but what he’s trying in the face of these limitations isn’t working.

LaVine could also try harder on defense. We all knew building a team around him and DeRozan would be problematic, but the second half of this season has seen LaVine’s individual defense fall off a cliff. Yes that is due to injury too, but that is a pretty convenient effect. In this series, DeRozan has had 6 steals, 2 blocks, 5 deflections and and drawn 3 charges (and attempted several more - hey it’s shameful flopping but it’s something). LaVine has had 3 steals, 1 block, 1 deflection and not a single charge drawn.

And plus there’s his trademark space cadet off-ball defending:

While LaVine gets three days of rest before Game 5, it’s doubtful that he’ll improve physically that much, so he needs to be smarter with an acknowledgement of his limitations.

Then, we can get to the discussion of LaVine’s next contract, as he will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. I was going to call it a ‘messy’ discussion but it’s really quite clear given how the cap works: LaVine is going to be re-signed by the Bulls at a massive 5 year contract. I would like to see the franchise negotiate down off the max to a figure still more than he can get from another team (because no matter any assessment of LaVine’s play, another team would offer their version of max money), but that’s ultimately just a few million and the imprecise ‘salary slot’ is going to be large one.

But while the first half of this year made it look obvious that LaVine was going to play at a ‘max contract level’ in his prime, the second half and these playoffs have made it more questionable to where yes you still sign him to that deal but maybe feel around for a sign-and-trade return, or look to trade a year or two into the deal.

Because now it’s clearly not-that-clear with LaVine: 1) can he stay healthy and 2) when not healthy, can he still find ways to be effective?