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Zach LaVine, and The Bulls, are stuck in a vortex of loserdom
LaVine is horribly miscast as a franchise centerpiece, and both parties are to blame
There’s been a lot that’s gone wrong for the Bulls so far in their 2-5 start to the season. It’s even worse when considering this is after Team Continuity and Camp Cohesion. Almost too much is bad to single out, and it goes nearly completely up and down the roster to the coaching to the front office.
But perhaps most significant is the underwhelming performance of The Mid 3, who are all playing sub-mid.
And of that group, I think Zach LaVine deserves the most scrutiny.
DeMar DeRozan may be slowing down for good, and we’re seeing how important even a slight slip from him is for the team. But he has been a good (though not great) as a leader, and we all know his game is more deservedly entrenched. Though, heck, he is taking more threes this year than any other time as a Bull.
Nikola Vucevic just was never good enough to be part of any triumvirate in the first place. And this year he shouldn’t be indulged but instead ridiculed for his petulance both in outward defiance and his passive-aggressive telling everyone where they can shove their shot profile: not even having around 30% of his shots come from three-point range like he was last year or his final season in Orlando, he’s now down to half that mark so far this year.
Zach LaVine was the member of this “star” group that had the most room, and reason, to grow. But so far this season he’s been the same or even worse both on and off the floor.
Even including his career-high 51 point game against Detroit, LaVine has had a bad shooting start to this season from pretty much everywhere:
Unlike Vuc, LaVine is shooting more three point attempts. But he should still be doing more. More realistic and productive than getting DeRozan to attempt 4 threes a game is for Zach to attempt 10. I have previously diagnosed Zach with Kobe-brain, and I fear it is a terminal illness. There are several points in each game where LaVine will forego the pull-up or catch-and-shoot three pointer for a more difficult attempt worth one less point.
His assist numbers are also down, half per-36 minutes from last season, and some of that can be due to teammates not making shots either. But anecdotally it still looks like LaVine simply isn’t that capable of a playmaker. He can make a good pass when it’s deliberate, but he doesn’t react quickly or well enough to defensive pressure.
And like the story of his Bulls career, this is exacerbated in crunch time. In Friday night’s loss against the Nets it was a typical un-clutch performance.
And it’s on the other side of the court too. It’s well-established that LaVine is a poor defensive player. To his credit to his politicking, he has successfully said “I’m good on the ball tho” enough times that media and observers repeat it without evidence.
After that Nets loss though it couldn’t be ignored. There’s a whole video on Bulls Reddit with several more instances, but here are the egregious crunch-time moments:
Darnell Mayberry of The Athletic had a great column on how it wasn’t just LaVine’s play here, but his response to questioning over it, that is reason why LaVine’s career “narrative” is that of a losing player:
Surprisingly, LaVine took exception to labels of “lapses” and “miscues.” When asked how he looks back on those, LaVine saved his best defense for after the game…As the leader, LaVine had a chance to accept accountability, admit fault and maybe even declare he’s got to be better. But he didn’t.
LaVine has shown so much as a scorer that it has afforded him many chances as he’s entered the prime of his career to take those additional steps both on and off the court.
He’s repeatedly failed. There was his assessment after the first game that the team “didn’t play with enough heart”. Then sharpening the knife for Donovan to Vincent Goodwill at Yahoo! saying “It’s not just the players” who have to fix this start, and that coach “I don’t know…misunderstood” what happened after opening night. LaVine has already, though not as emphatically as Vuc, been outwardly skeptical of Donovan’s offensive tactics that were supposed to improve the team’s 24th-place showing on that end last year.
LaVine followed up his crunch time dud the next night with an entire-game dud. 4 of 12 from the field (only 5 3PA in 30 minutes) for 12 points. He has 4 assists but 3 turnovers.
That game, on a back-to-back traveling to mile-high air and facing the defending champs, was always going to be a tough task. But Will Gottlieb of CHGO noted that LaVine’s performance was worse than even those circumstances should afford:
His poor shot selection, low effort on defense and inability/unwillingness to fit into the team structure and help create easier offense for the group at large stood out in this game more than any other in recent memory.
This play stands out: attacking one-on-four with no plan, turning it over and then jogging back on defense only to see the Nuggets extend their lead to 16 with a triple.
Luckily for LaVine’s clutch numbers, this game was never close enough for that to become a factor. Instead you had the Nuggets announcers openly accusing him of stat-padding:
Fans of this team, that has Zach LaVine as one of their best players, knows he does this all the time.
One could theorize preseason that perhaps this was the season that LaVine would mature and elevate his career and take this franchise higher with it. But that now (and pretty much entirely then, too) looks like hopeful grasping at straws.
Outsiders assessing LaVine across the broader base of “stars” in this league, some of which comes up in context of the Bulls shopping him in a trade, have preconceived notions that have not been proven incorrect: LaVine IS a losing player. If he is the highest paid player on your team, the team is a loser too.
Some of that is on the Bulls, of course, and LaVine’s prior franchise in Minnesota is barely above them in recent displays of competence.
LaVine may blossom on another team, but it’s not a given. I probably won’t care at that point, but I’d think it’s only if that team is really good already and has players who LaVine can’t help but recognize are way better than him. The Bulls already have a teammate who is slightly better than him in DeRozan, and LaVine has only bristled at taking any back seat, especially at the end of games, and still talks like he’s an unimpeachable star.
That entitlement is partially why his trade value is so low that the Bulls couldn’t move him this offseason. Another reason is because he’s not that good.
That puts the Bulls in a rather poor position, because LaVine is playing like he’s ready for his next team already.
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