If You’re Looking for Reasons to be Optimistic, Zach LaVine Gave Us Some
If you told me to put a percentage on how baffled I would be if the Chicago Bulls traded Zach LaVine this offseason, my number wouldn’t be as high as it probably should be.
One of only a handful of players owed a max contract, his paycheck represents the exact kind of talent every team in the league wants to keep. However, we all know things are never that simple. Not only does LaVine lack the kind of resume of many other max men, but the Bulls are also in a precarious position.
Arturas Karnisovas mortgaged much of the franchise’s future on a “Big 3” that missed the playoff one year after achieving nothing more than a five-game first-round exit. In other words, change almost certainly has to be made. And using LaVine as a trade chip would likely offer the front office the kind of return it needs to begin legitimately restocking its asset pool.
Still, none of this is to say I expect LaVine to be traded. The fact he received a max contract does speak to the talent he possesses. I know he may not be capable of being the No. 1 player on a championship team, but that’s also not what it takes to receive that kind of payday in today’s NBA. The league rewards All-Star-level talent that can be part of a winning equation. While some are surely skeptical of whether LaVine can provide the latter, he is a multi-time All-Star whose scoring ability has proven to be truly elite.
It’s not particularly hard to talk yourself into believing LaVine can continue to be a building block in the pursuit of success. Frankly, I’d go as far as to say this became even more true this past season. Chicago doesn’t even crack the Play-In Tournament without LaVine’s post-All-Star-break performance. He averaged 27.0 points per game on 53.2 percent shooting from the field and 39.4 percent from downtown in those 26 games.
To put that further into perspective, out of the 16 players who scored at least 500 points after the All-Star break, only Jimmy Butler managed to also shoot 50.0+ percent from the field AND 39.0+ percent from downtown, per NBA Stats. And Butler took just 27 shots from downtown compared to LaVine’s 137.
I’m sure some are thinking, “who cares … too little, too late.” And, in a sense, I totally get that. The Bulls still finished where they did, and LaVine surely shouldn’t escape that criticism. However, let’s not forget that he entered the season fresh off knee surgery. The two-time All-Star had to play himself back into game shape, and we can’t necessarily blame him for the timing of things. Also, it’s not like he performed well only during those final 26 games of the season.
The old LaVine started to show signs of life in January when he dropped 41 on the 76ers and followed that up with 36 against the Jazz. In fact, LaVine finished tied as the NBA’s third-leading scorer in 2023 (aka Jan. 1st to end of the regular season). Only Joel Embiid and Damian Lillard scored more points than the Bulls’ guard. I mean, that’s really freakin’ impressive!
Do you know what’s more encouraging than all of that, though? The minutes LaVine spent on the floor. LaVine played the third-most total minutes in the NBA this season at 2,767. The only players to sit in front of him were Mikal Bridges and Anthony Edwards, respectively. To no surprise, that set a career-high in minutes played for LaVine. And his 77 appearances also marked his most since he played in all 82 games during his second season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Remember how scared everyone was when he sat out the first two games of the season and couldn’t appear in both games of the first few back-to-backs? Talk about putting those concerns to bed!
Look, I know the LaVine experience has been a lot like going out with old college friends. One night you might have a blast and the next night you might be wondering if it’s time to move on. Still, the good news is that we can pretty much only view the way he finished out this season as a positive.
If the plan is for the front office to continue building with him in mind, he held up his end of the bargain by continuing to improve year over year (this time by showing he can stay on the court). Conversely, if the plan is to move on from him sooner than later, he likely improved his value by putting together another efficient stretch and displaying that he’s fully healthy.
Are there still questions about things like his defense, decision-making, and overall fit next to certain players? Sure. I can’t deny that. But we also can’t deny that he continued to show signs of progress this season. For someone who is still just 28 years old and just entering his prime years, that’s at least something positive.