When the Chicago Bulls had a chance to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night, everyone and their mother (… father, sister, brother, and dog) knew where the ball was going. And that wasn’t the only time.
Whether it be last-second, game-on-the-line possessions against the Wizards, Hawks, Knicks, or Bucks, DeMar DeRozan was the one we all knew would have the ball in his hands. And why wouldn’t he be?
If the NBA’s new Clutch Player of the Year award existed one season ago, it would have likely gone to the Bulls’ five-time All-Star. DeRozan finished the season with the most 4th-quarter points scored and became the first player in NBA history to knock down buzzer-beaters on consecutive days. Heck, DeRozan might very well still be the first to win the award this year, as he comfortably leads the league in total points scored in the clutch.
Simply put, we can’t deny that DeRozan is one of the best crunch-times shotmakers in the league. But we also can’t deny that it’s a bit odd to see the organization lean so heavily on the player who didn’t just receive a max contract this offseason.
DeRozan’s late-game usage is just a microcosm of a bigger issue for the Chicago Bulls: What is Zach LaVine’s true role on this team? Despite LaVine being paid like the face of the franchise, it continues to be DeRozan whose face is plastered on billboards and getting a literal shot to save the day. That’s normally the responsibility of the max man, and it’s apparently left LaVine a bit confused.
Only a couple of weeks back, The Athletic dropped a major story about LaVine and the Chicago Bulls not seeing eye-to-eye. The context was vague at best, but the message was clear. And NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson recently relayed that message on the Bulls Talk Podcast (emphasis mine):
“I think the element of Zach knowing this is tilting toward DeMar’s team is very much in play,” Johnson said. “That, to me, is when that Athletic report from Miami, him and the organization not seeing eye to eye, started. And I said in my year look ahead piece, I sourced out that Zach has privately questioned his role [and] standing amongst the franchise at some times … Zach is a professional. He’s a team player. But he’s got a lot of confidence.”
I want to make something clear before I continue: Both The Athletic and Johnson made sure to stress that there is no personal tension between DeRozan and LaVine. The apparent concerns are entirely about the on-court product and not at all about the genuine attempt to make it work between these two players. There is a lot of respect there.
Now, having said that, respect doesn’t always lead to production. We’ve all seen this Bulls team continue to struggle this season, and there is little doubt that this DeRozan-LaVine fit has been part of that. This year’s offense has felt far more like a “your turn, my turn” ordeal (which is at least somewhat understandable considering the clear lack of a starting point guard). The two just haven’t seemed to figure out how to play off one another in the same way we saw last season … but should that fact have LaVine questioning his role?
Honestly, and I’m not sure if this will be the popular opinion, but I’d actually say yes.
If I were the player who just re-signed with the organization to be the face and highest-paid talent in franchise history, I’d be a bit irked if I wasn’t the one catered to. And, look, I know that can sound kind of selfish, but I genuinely don’t think that’s the place LaVine is coming from. He’s probably just confused about how this team is trying to play and how this team is trying to use his skills (ok, and he probably wants at least one game-winning attempt thrown his way).
I mean, seriously, it is a bit weird to see the recently-maxed player average his lowest usage percentage since his final season in Minnesota. Not to mention, he’s currently sitting behind DeRozan in touches per game after finishing tied with the co-star DeRozan last season.
The two are at least tied with an average of 5.1 field goal attempt in the 4th quarter this season, but DeRozan does average at least one more shot in clutch situations. Plus, if we just look inside the final two minutes of clutch games this season, DeRozan has taken 33 shots compared to LaVine’s 15.
Now, to be absolutely fair, DeRozan has played in four more clutch games than LaVine in 2022-23. But I think we can all agree that a trend is still obvious: DeRozan is the head honcho. This can be a lot easier for someone like LaVine to stomach when the team is winning. When the team is losing, however, it seems fair for LaVine to question whether or not more should be put on his shoulders. If anything, that’s the kind of responsibility a leader should want.
So what does that mean exactly? Should LaVine just start stealing shots away from his teammates? Eh, not necessarily. One thing LaVine has proven over the past year is that he can be a pretty unselfish player. He welcomed two high-usage All-Stars into Chicago and sacrificed what was needed to try to make things work. This isn’t a mentality we should want him to lose.
Instead, I feel like the Bulls simply need to find him more. We’re talking about finding him on even more catch-and-shoot opportunities behind the arc and even more easy cuts to the rim. Shooting 38.0 percent from downtown on the season and 44.3 percent on C&S looks, there is no reason a team that shoots by far the fewest 3s in the league should prioritize giving LaVine more chances. He takes just 7.4 attempts per game right now, which ranks just 27th in the NBA. Creeping that (7.4 APG) number up closer to double-digits could make a lot of sense.
As for his cutting ability, we all know how much athleticism LaVine brings to the floor. He ranked in the 97th percentile of cutters last season with an average of 1.64 PPP, per NBA Stats. The Bulls would score 82.1 percent of the time when LaVine was found cutting to the rim. His numbers in that category have dipped across the board this season, and I have to imagine it’s because of (1) no true point guard and (2) a rusty start to the year as he worked his way back to full speed. If one thing is for sure, though, LaVine is looking far more like his old healthy self in recent weeks, so he should be ready to execute at a high level as long as his teammates can find him in his spots.
I want to stress that none of this is to say that I think LaVine is void of any wrongdoing. He still needs to figure out the best way to thrive in his environment, and he also needs to prove that he can be as effective as his clutch teammate to reclaim the top of the totem pole.
At the same time, it’s up to his front office, head coach, and teammates to help put him in a position that best utilizes his pricey skillset. Is allowing DeRozan to eat up half-court sets and not having more facilitating talent on the roster accomplishing that? I’m not so sure, and I think a 16-21 record would agree.