Before a torn ACL robbed him of the last 32 games of the 2016-17 season, Zach LaVine was creeping on a come-up.
A Day 1 starter for the first time since being taken No. 13 overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2014, the UCLA product increased his scoring average for the third-straight season in as many years in the NBA, going from 10.1 points per game as a rookie, to 14.0 in his sophomore campaign, to 18.9 last year. Had he finished the campaign, his 37.2 minutes per game would have tied for third-most in the league.
The Chicago Bulls shook up the NBA on draft day when they hit the reset button and traded three-time All-Star and Olympic gold medalist Jimmy Butler, as well as the No. 16 pick, to Minnesota for LaVine, Kris Dunn and the No. 7 selection. In an instant, the 6’5”, 185-pound UCLA product went from underrated, playing in the shadows of top draft picks Karl-Anthony Towns (25.1 points and 12.3 rebounds per game) and Andrew Wiggins (23.6 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game), to the most anticipated player for one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. He’ll be expected to restore the feel-good vibes in Chicago as the Bulls recoup and rebuild in the wake of the Butler-Dwyane Wade-Rajon Rondo triumvirate rendering itself fruitless.
That’s a lot for a 22-year-old shoulder. And yet, when LaVine returns, his track record suggests he could become a prime candidate for Most Improved Player while entering the league’s upper echelon at his position.
Along with his raw scoring and minutes totals, LaVine’s shooting and effective shooting figures have improved by an average of 1.85 and 3.95 percentage points, respectively, each season. This sets his trajectory, at least from an efficiency standpoint, on an impressive track. Butler’s points-per-game tallies have gone up each year of his career from 2.6 as a rookie in 2011-12 to 23.9 in 2016-17. LeBron James saw an uptick in field-goal percentage in nine of his first 10 years.
Hoping LaVine ever rises to James’ status is wishful thinking, but he’s already well ahead of Butler offensively at the same point in his career. In his third season in 2013-14, Butler, then 24, averaged 13.1 points on 39.7 percent shooting from the field, including 28.3 percent from three-point range—the second-lowest figure of his career. He blew up the next season, in which he enjoyed his best shooting performance ever (46.2 percent from the field, 37.8 percent on three, 50.2 effective field-goal percentage) to go for 20.0 points per game and earn the first of three consecutive All-Star nods. LaVine knocked down 45.9 percent of his attempts last season and stroked 38.7 percent of his triples.
Butler, of course, is a far superior defender:
This undoubtedly contributed to him posting a minus-117 raw plus/minus, which ranked No. 403 on the league-wide scale. Minnesota was 16-31 (.340) with LaVine in the lineup and 19-31 (.380) after he went down for the season. But his superior athleticism, evidenced by his back-to-back virtuoso performances in the 2015 and 2016 Slam Dunk Contests, suggests he should have the physical tools to be serviceable stopper—provided, of course, he doesn’t suffer from lingering long-term effects related to his ACL injury. Having Wade, a three-time All-Defensive choice, whispering words of wisdom in his ears won’t hurt, either. Chicago general manager Gar Forman is betting LaVine’s defense can catch up with his offense the way Butler’s offense did his defense. If that happens, the Bulls will have their own Monster of the Midway.
Too bad their point guard situation might not help him make the leap from good to great.
Nbawowy data reveals LaVine was at his best last season when playing alongside Ricky Rubio, now a member of the Utah Jazz. Rubio was fifth in the league, averaging 9.1 assists per game. With him in the lineup, LaVine’s effective (56.4) and true (59.2) shooting percentages, as well as his points-per-possession stats (1.20), were the highest among Timberwolves’ starters.
He wasn’t nearly as successful playing with Dunn, who disappointed in his first pro season with averages of 3.8 points, 2.4 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game. LaVine’s figures dropped to 52.7 (effective field goal percentage), 55.8 (true shooting percentage) and 1.16 (points per possession) whenever the rookie floor general was his backcourt partner.
The Bulls’ current point guard package doesn’t offer anything or anyone better. It’s a top-to-bottom mixed bag of unproven commodities, including Jerian Grant (5.7 points, 1.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists for his career), Cameron Payne (5.0 points, 1.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists) and reserve David Nwaba (6.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 0.7 assists). Somebody will have to step up and show out.
Placing the ball in LaVine’s hands and allowing him to run the offense the way Mike D’Antoni did with James Harden last season wouldn’t be prudent of Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. Minnesota already tried that. With Wiggins and veteran Kevin Martin occupying the wing spots in 2014-15, LaVine played point guard 94 percent of the time he was on the floor, according to Basketball Reference. That season, he led the team with 193 turnovers, 108 of which came on bad passes. Last season, when he played shooting guard exclusively (99 percent of the time), his 1.8 giveaways a night was fourth among Minnesota’s starting five.
Six of the top 10 scorers among shooting guards—a list that includes DeMar DeRozan, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, Devin Booker and Wade— played with point guards who averaged six or more assists. Damian Lillard’s 5.9 dimes per game helped C.J. McCollum pump in a career-high 22.9 points, fourth-highest among 2-guards.
Finding LaVine a solid running mate in the backcourt should be the first step in simplifying matters. Payne (six percent) and Dunn (34 percent) haven’t spent much time playing off the ball during their careers. The 6’4″ Nwaba, who’s entering his second season, played shooting guard the majority of the time (70 percent) he was on the floor with the Los Angeles Lakers. He averaged 14.3 points on 65.7 percent shooting to go along with 4.4 rebounds in each of the three games he played 28 or more minutes in April. His relatively low turnover rate (1.4 per 100 possessions) makes him a dependable option to spend more time as a lead guard.
Grant played off the ball 75 percent of the time as a rookie with the New York Knicks in 2015-16, but he turned in disappointing on/off splits; the team improved by 5.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench. The Bulls, however, saw their net rating improve with him in the game, in no small part because they moved him back to his natural position. Both he and Nwaba shot 43.8 percent in spot-up situations in 2016-17, but they took fewer than two such shots per game. It’d be downright loony to think their perimeter prowess can be relied upon out of dribble-drive action, at least early on. Dunn (35.1 percent) and Payne (33.3 percent) are even worse.
LaVine’s assist percentage off drives last season was 3.9 last year.
The Bulls best bet might be to play their two vets, LaVine and Wade, in the backcourt and let them share ball-handling responsibilities. LaVine, after all, boasted an effective field-goal percentage of 47.0 as a pick-and-roll initiator. He’s a threat without the ball in his hands as well. He connected on a 42.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot three-point looks. That’ll create space for others, when his man will inevitably have to spend time chasing him off the three-point line. Wade might not be worth the $23.8 million he’ll make in 2017-18, but he still averaged 18.3 points per game last season and will make for a capable No. 2. The 35-year-old posted a 43.9 effective field-goal percentage off screens—not good, but better than Kawhi Leonard (43.7) and James (39.1)
Without anyone to show deference to in the Bulls’ offense, LaVine will have more opportunity than ever. His usage should spike. Expect him to be among the league’s leaders in field-goal attempts and minutes. But without a suitable partner in the backcourt, his job will be infinitely more difficult as he garners more attention from every opponent’s top perimeter stopper and faces defensive schemes designed specifically to slow him down.
Defensively, LaVine simply has to come a long way in a short amount of time.
He gave up 1.08 points per possession to spot-up shooters last season, a regression from his sophomore campaign. After allowing 0.89 points per possession when isolated on defense in 2015-16, he clamped down a bit more and held the opposition to 0.57 points per possession this past season. Dunn, a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year, got taken for 1.11 points per possession when matched up with spot-up shooters and 0.80 when defending isos. Nearly a decade removed from the last of his three All-Defensive team honors, Wade is just doing his best to hold up. He allowed 1.01 and 0.93 points per possession in the same situations. Payne (1.39 and 0.82), Grant (0.80 and 0.97) and Justin Holiday (0.98 and 1.00) aren’t hounds out there, either. From time to time, Nwaba could possibly lighten the burden and spell LaVine on defense. He finished in the 92nd percentile in defense off screens, albeit in limited exposure. LaVine, on the other hand, is in the 25th percentile in the same category.
LaVine and the rest of Chicago’s guards and small forwards can’t depend upon their frontcourt to right their wrongs. Center Robin Lopez (10 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in 2016-17) is a grown man at 7’0″, 255 pounds. His 1.44 blocks per game was the NBA’s 11th-best average and he was one of the league’s plus defenders within six feet of the basket, but no one is mistaking him for an elite rim protector. First-round pick Lauri Markkanen’s shortcomings on defense were well-documented heading into the draft. But, despite averaging a mere 0.7 blocks and and 0.5 steals per 40 minutes in his lone season at Arizona, the 7-footer is simply too darn good to sit. The highly-skilled stretch 5 put up 15.6 points and drained 49.2 percent of his field goals and 42.3 percent of his three-point looks while adding 7.2 boards a contest.
The rest of the Bulls’ bigs, a group consisting of 6’9″ Cristiano Felicio (0.3 blocks per game), 6’10” Nikola Mirotic (0.8) and 6’11” Bobby Portis (0.2) aren’t deterring anyone from taking it to the rack. Last season, only eight teams gave up more points in the paint per game than Chicago.
Plain and simple, the Bulls won’t be able to hide the holes in LaVine’s game. Homeboy is just going to have to patch them. It’s time for him to barbecue or mildew. He’ll earn $3.2 million in 2017-18, the final of a four-year rookie deal. Next summer, he’s set to become a restricted free agent. So, he has to heal up and show the Bulls he’s worthy of being paid big-boy bucks.
He has one season to seize the opportunity of a lifetime, and he won’t have much help.
Follow Nick on Twitter @Birds_Word.