Before sharing a jersey, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic shared something else: The need for some help.
The two players were stuck on perpetually rebuilding teams over the last several seasons. While both started to work their way up the league ranks, their teams refused to follow. Other promising young prospects that were supposed to turn into fellow stars failed to pan out, and it left both organizations with a decision to make. The Bulls and Magic could either start from scratch or go on an aggressive pursuit to maximize their existing All-Star’s potential (aka … get some help). The Magic chose the former, and the Bulls chose the latter. Both are justified in their decision-making, especially since LaVine is about to enter his prime with Vooch in the midst of his.
Although the Magic chose not to grab their All-Star more surrounding talent, they still individually gave him the help he likely craved. He and LaVine now have each other – an arguably better helping hand than either could have imagined. To say they are relieved would probably be an understatement.
“It’s great, man. Even a game like this, where my shot wasn’t going as much, you’re not as pressed to have all the pressure on you to go out there and try to save the game or keep you in the game. We can run a play and dump it down to him, and I know we’re going to be okay,” LaVine told reporters (laughing a bit) after the Bulls dominant 113-97 victory over the Pacers. “It’s a relief.”
Adding an All-Star teammate is one thing. Adding an All-Star teammate at a perfect complimentary position is another. Vucevic doesn’t just give the Bulls an upgrade in the talent department, but he gives the team an elite frontcourt presence to pair with their elite backcourt scorer. This means the capability to run one of the East’s more dynamic two-man games, which is something that has already begun to develop right before our eyes.
Over the Bulls last two games, we have seen some of the most promising action yet between the two new teammates. The duo combined for 51 points, 25 rebounds, and 11 assists on Tuesday night. They also shot a solid 8-19 from behind the arc. Vucevic commented on what it’s been like to see this chemistry grow after the win:
“It’s great. Zach is a great player, and he can score in many ways, he can facilitate, he does a lot of things on the court. And I think at times he might be a little too unselfish, and he can be a little more aggressive, which I’ve told him. But, it’s great, I think the more him and I are able to grow and build that chemistry, our two-man game, the better we’ll be for the whole team. I think in this league when you have a two-man game like that with two guys that can score in different ways, it’s very hard to guard, so we continue to work on it to build our chemistry.”
Hard to guard is right.
Both LaVine and Vucevic possess the ability to score at all three levels. Even better, both are pretty damn efficient at doing so.
LaVine’s 60.0 eFG% ranks in 89th percentile, and his 42 percent clip from behind the arc is in the league’s 88th percentile. Vooch, on the other hand, came to the Bulls scoring the 7th-most points in the paint per game, shooting roughly 58 percent at the rim, 47 percent on mid-range buckets, and 40 percent from 3-point land. In other words, both players have to be respected at any spot on the court, which meaning committing to one or the other in pick-and-roll situations is almost always a lose-lose situation.
“Our chemistry is getting a lot better. Obviously, us in pick and roll will be deadly going forward,” LaVine said. “It helps me as a playmaker and it makes the reads easy. Either me or him is going to get a good play for the team. He had it going today, I missed a couple of easy ones, but I obviously still think I’m a threat out there and make them respect me, so us in the pick and roll just trying to find him. Hold the guard, hold the big, and just help him get the easy shot.”
Zach LaVine finished with six assists in Chicago’s win over Indiana, and four of those assists went to Vucevic. Another went to Thaddeus Young for an easy dunk when LaVine caught the defense with their eyes locked on the screening big man.
Like LaVine said, the two-man game these guys develop will make reads easier. Passing lanes will open up and more opportunities will arise for everyone involved thanks to both players requiring so much of the defense’s attention. The only way that changes is if either LaVine or Vooch wants it to, and … well … that would be just ridiculous.
“I think you guys know me, I’m all about winning and trying to get this team better, so if that means me taking lesser role some nights and my scoring goes down, I’m fine with that as long as we get a win,” LaVine said.
Neither LaVine nor Vucevic have ever played alongside a fellow All-Star after becoming one themselves. In fact, neither have much experience playing alongside an All-Star caliber player at all. We’d have to go all the way back to 2013-14 to find the last time Vucevic shared the court with even a future All-Star, and that was a rookie version of Victor Oladipo. The only time Vucevic was ever on a team with a player that had already earned All-Star status was during his rookie and sophomore seasons. During his first season in the league with the Philadelphia 76ers, the team had Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand. In his second season, and first with the Magic, he played alongside one-time All-Star Jameer Nelson.
Meanwhile, LaVine’s only run-in with All-Star talent came over his first three seasons in Minnesota. He played alongside Karl-Anthony Towns (who would earn his first nod the season after LaVine left) and a way-out-of-his-prime Kevin Garnett.
Put differently, there is no question that both players are ready to make the necessary sacrifices to play alongside better talent and win more basketball games. Both know what it’s like to have to do on their own, and that’s why both sure do sound thrilled to finally have a partner in crime. Marriage is a beautiful thing.