You try to see each player for their peculiar qualities. Not trivia, not big Fela Kuti fan or likes banana peppers on his pizza, but something they show you that others don’t. This game gets boring, if you focus too much on what each guy gives you, as opposed to how they do it. What’s special about Zach LaVine is his rubberiness, how every movement seems to contain and swiftly expend the energy of a walloped racquetball compressing against the wall. He’s charismatic just throwing a bounce pass, dribbling over the halfcourt line. You feel like he could dunk taking off of his big toe.
While that natural athleticism obviously helps him on the court, it has perhaps also made us slow to appreciate the fulsome layers of polish he’s applied to his game over the past few seasons. There’s no doubt LaVine came into the league as more of a runner and leaper than a basketball player, one of those testing freaks where you’re not sure whether he’s going to become an All-NBA candidate or a Dunk Contest winner who’s out of the league by age 25. But he’s 26 now and for a while he’s been scoring at a volume you don’t achieve simply blowing past slower defenders, with an efficiency that requires superior footwork and touch. What LaVine did once was Monta Ellis, young J.R. Smith, Minny era Andrew Wiggins kind of stuff but he has recently nestled himself into that second tier of bucket-getters, right below Steph Curry and Kevin Durant. There’s substance behind his flash and those fat raw numbers are backed up by sturdy percentages.
Look, here. Over the past three seasons: 25.5 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting, 39.3 percent on 7.1 threes per game, 82.7 percent on 5.6 free throw per game. It’s worth pointing out that two of those three years (the tail end of the Hoiberg Epoch and the tragicomic birth and death of the Boylen Age), the Bulls were awful. And last season, Billy Donovan’s anodyne competence buoyed them for a while before they burst into flames about 2.8 seconds after trading away Wendell Carter, Otto Porter, and a pair of first-rounders for Nik Vučević. LaVine carried a sprained ankle for parts of March and April as Chicago racked up Ls, before shutting things down for most of the last month of the season. It’s true that as convincing as his numbers are, he hasn’t contributed meaningfully to a winning team.
We tend to characterize guys like LaVine as chuckers or stat-chasers, but looking at his performances from a slightly different valence, he has put the the ball in the basket—his primary job, after all—at a more than solid clip within the context of some mediocre to downright dire offenses, alongside teammates who lack instincts and gravity, schemes that haven’t done him any favors. (Jim Boylen is not, ahem, any more innovative than he looks.) LaVine is in some respect responsible for his environment—basketball is a team game—but at a certain point we have to give a player credit for being really good at the thing he’s called on to do and not worry so much that he can’t instill confidence in Lauri Markkanen, or keep Otto Porter off the trainer’s table, or teach Kris Dunn how to shoot. LaVine has been terrific despite the hardships of being a Bull. And what the Bulls are hasn’t particularly been his fault.
Sure, you need to see it in games that count. Here is where we abandon the peculiarities and start treating LaVine like an archetype. Weren’t we saying the same things about Devin Booker and Trae Young this time last year? Young is a spectacular playmaker in addition to everything else that he brings, so he’s in a slightly different category, but Booker is essentially LaVine Goes West. He’s more of a midrange artist whereas LaVine likes to bomb it from deep, but they are both free-scoring guards who have become moderately skillful passers as they’ve aged into their mid-20s, who don’t give you much more than effort on defense, and whose chief utility is that you can just toss them the ball and they’ll create a decent look for themselves. As I wrote in the Booker entry of this series: he was the second-best player on a team that made the Finals last year, and he hardly changed at all. What got Phoenix where they were going was the addition of Chris Paul and remarkable improvement from Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. And Devin Booker being a walking bucket. Because that’s an immensely valuable thing to be.
The Bulls figure to be competitive this year. Chicagoans are saying they’re back, and they might actually mean it this time. Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan will give LaVine more help than he has ever had in his career, and given that they’re both smart players who like to share the ball, figuring out who takes how many shots and when is something they can likely figure out among themselves. They’re probably not building a Finals contender in Chicago—DeMar, LaVine, and Vooch sharing the floor, even if the other two guys are Ball and Patrick Williams, presents a dicey defensive situation—but it should be a real team, at least, maybe even an exciting one. Crucially for LaVine, he should get an opportunity to show what he can do outside the context of blowouts, pointless Marches and Aprils. 25 points in a win, 25 points in a loss. It feels facile to say that the only difference is what else happens, but in LaVine’s case, it certainly seems that way. Call it a hypothesis. Finally, we might have the means to test it.