The End of Zach LaVine's Season Might be Bumpy, But it Doesn't Change His Status as a Franchise Building Block

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The End of Zach LaVine’s Season Might be Bumpy, But it Doesn’t Change His Status as a Franchise Building Block

Chicago Bulls

Zach LaVine’s first taste of playoff basketball hasn’t been the most delectable.

On the brink of elimination with a 3-1 series deficit to the Milwaukee Bucks, LaVine has averaged 19.3 points and 6.0 assists on an underwhelming 42.9 percent mark from the floor and 37.5 percent clip from downtown. He’s finished with a negative double-digit plus-minus in three of the four games thus far, struggling to supply the Bulls with the same kind of reliable offensive boost that has now earned him two-straight All-Star nods.

The relatively quiet start to his playoff career has only felt amplified when we consider LaVine’s impending free agency. Set to hit the unrestricted market this summer, the 27-year-old is in line to sign the first max contract of his career. We’re talking a four-year deal worth $160 million if he opts to head elsewhere and a five-year, $200 million paycheck if he decides to stay in Chicago. And, all things considered, we have no reason to believe the organization will not extend him that latter offer. And, all things considered, we have no reason to believe LaVine would choose not to accept that offer.

I type all of that because I see a growing discourse among a sector of fans about whether or not this is the way things should go this summer. And although I disagree, I do understand where the concern is coming from. It’s hard to stomach the Bulls losing in the first round in a relatively non-competitive series, especially when a potential franchise cornerstone isn’t performing in the way … well … a potential franchise cornerstone should perform. But we can’t lose sight of the context, which feels particularly important when it comes to LaVine.

The man is injured, and that’s an undeniable fact. LaVine has been upfront that he would not finish the regular season near 100 percent, and head coach Billy Donovan has also been upfront about dealing with that reality. His knee has clearly impacted his normal production, and we need to look no further than the second half of the season to see just that.

Up until January 15th when LaVine first received an MRI on his sore knee, he averaged 24.9 points per game (11th) and had scored the 8th-most points in the NBA. He was shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from downtown. The only other player to average at least 23 points with at least 48 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent shooting from downtown over that span was Karl-Anthony Towns.

Since that mid-January day, LaVine went on to average 23.7 points (20th) with a 45.5 percent performance from the field and 36.0 percent performance from downtown. We watched his overall effective field goal percentage drop from 57.2 (85th percentile) to 53.4 (44th percentile), per Cleaning the Glass. To be certain, that’s still plenty decent, but it does reflect a pretty sizable dip in scoring efficiency, which is something the eye test has indicated is due to a lack of lift in his jumper and a general decrease in downhill explosiveness (both of which are plenty understandable considering the injury).

Assuming this is a problem LaVine can fully take care of in the offseason – which we have been given zero reasons to doubt – then it feels somewhat safe to assume LaVine can return to his first-half self in the future. And that first-half self feels like an almost clear-cut All-NBA caliber player, and thus an obvious max-caliber player.

Indeed, if we take a closer look at just where LaVine has ranked among the NBA’s best scorers over the past two seasons, it’s become more than obvious that he’s vastly underpaid. The Bulls’ All-Star has finished top-13 in total points scored for the second-straight regular season in a row. During the 2020-21 campaign, LaVine was the second-lowest paid non-rookie contract player to make the cut behind only Julius Randle. In 2021-22, LaVine was officially the lowest-paid non-rookie contract player to make the cut.

Sure, we can bring up his inconsistent defense, but he’s also 27 years old. LaVine is just entering what is widely accepted as the “prime” of his NBA career. What the Bulls would be investing in is the continued development of his all-around and already offensively-elite game. I think that’s a worthwhile bet considering LaVine has never really shown anything but year-of-year improvement during his career – just go look at Basketball-Reference (which doesn’t include the truly encouraging defense he played during his time with Team USA).

Indeed, this still untapped potential is a big reason he remains near the top of many free-agent rankings this season. HoopsHype just put LaVine above both James Harden and Kyrie Irving as the best available player in this summer’s class. Meanwhile, Basketball News dot com and CBS Sports ranked him behind only Harden back in March. The popular belief is that LaVine is a must-have star who continues to trend upward, and I highly doubt these four playoff games have significantly changed that perception.

Let’s also not forget whom LaVine and the Chicago Bulls are up against. While the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense was not as fierce as in past years during the regular season, they have returned to championship form during this first-round series. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Co. have held a top-ranked 94.2 defensive rating in the playoffs thus far. Have the Bulls helped them out with some stinky shooting? Of course, but the Bucks also have a DPOY anchoring the frontcourt and an All-NBA Defensive First Team member anchoring the backcourt. They have the kind of personnel that can make life hard on LaVine along the perimeter and at the rim, especially an injured LaVine.

Oh, and we say all that after still watching him look like one of the best players on the floor in Game 4 with 24 points and a playoff career-high 13 assists.

Look, I get LaVine isn’t Curry or Durant or Giannis or LeBron, but that also isn’t what it takes to get a max contract in today’s NBA. If franchises ran that way, they would lose for decades as they wait for a generational talent to fall in their lap. LaVine is a top-25 player in this league – at least, that’s what The Ringer named him this season – and teams shouldn’t let a player like that walk. We already saw how rough things can get when the Bulls sent Jimmy Butler on his merry way back in 2017 (though, to be sure, the parallels here aren’t perfect). LaVine – having come back in that deal with Minnesota – almost presents a do-over opportunity for the franchise, and I expect this front office to take advantage of that opportunity.

Author: Elias Schuster

Elias Schuster is the Lead Bulls Writer at Bleacher Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @Schuster_Elias.