In the 2020-21 NBA season, Zach LaVine came close to entering historically vaunted air as a scorer: the 50-40-90 club. At 51 percent from the field, 42 percent from beyond the arc, and 85 percent on his free throws, he was one of the most efficient volume scorers in basketball—tallying a career-high 27.4 per game—and earned his first ever All-Star selection that year. Perhaps more importantly, he had proved his skeptics wrong by developing a sense of judgment and game management that it looked like he may never have. He had begun his trajectory, continued the following season and concluding this past summer, toward a maximum salary.

Now, LaVine is a $215 million man. His past contract, secured when doubts were a greater part of his résumé than accomplishments, was worth just under $80 million. He is signed with the Chicago Bulls through 2026, when he has a player option that he will probably take; as an injury-prone player at 27, his next few years will have gone spectacularly well if he becomes a 31-year-old with an agent confident that someone else will pay him $48 million per season. Given LaVine’s current form, that bountiful outcome does not seem likely; plenty could change, of course, but he and the Bulls are off to an awfully queasy start this season.

Few questioned the idea of LaVine’s big pay day: the sticker shock is there, as it always is with such big numbers, but the amount he’s set to earn is simply what it costs to retain an All-Star entering his prime years. Those uncomfortable with the idea, though, were largely focused on LaVine’s body. Although he gained basically all of his athleticism back after tearing his ACL in 2017, he has missed roughly 20 games per season since, with the state of his knees as the ongoing variable in what he’s capable of night-to-night. This has especially been the case since last winter, when he mostly played through pain, but was much less effective going to the rim as a result.

Since then, the Bulls have also been a much worse team, following an exciting 27-12 start to their 2021-22 campaign. They have been 28-38 since, with their decline often connected to Lonzo Ball not seeing the floor since around then, which has undoubtedly been a crucial factor. But LaVine maintaining a 28 percent usage rate as a physically compromised player has hurt just as much, if not more. Worse yet, LaVine’s play during the Bulls’ unsightly 9-14 start has featured substantial mental regressions, with the kinds of gnarly “I got this” moments more frequently seen during his earlier seasons.

His fit with DeMar DeRozan has proved questionable, as well. Criticizing DeRozan is complex, since he is in the 99th percentile of what he does, and what he does—scoring within the three-point arc, and at the free-throw line—is undoubtedly valuable. LaVine and the Bulls don’t seem to thrive as a whole, however, as DeRozan does historical stuff from his spots, and his wizardry has more often been a lifeline than it’s been the soil of an offensively varied garden. By now, it seems fair to say that LaVine probably needs to play next to a different kind of running mate: one who runs an offense instead of bails it out; someone whose primary management he can play off.

When the Bulls can be made to run his offense, it seems that head coach Billy Donovan is interested in making big man Nikola Vucevic that kind of centerpiece. The idea makes some sense, if only in theory: even if he’s not scoring at All-Star levels anymore, Vucevic is the best distributor on the team, a smart and seasoned player, and obviously tall enough to make any pass. In practice, though, Vucevic doesn’t demand enough attention from defenses to be anything more than a connecting piece, and doesn’t look to have enough clout within the ranks of this roster, either. Occasionally, LaVine, DeRozan, and Vucevic run the three-man actions Donovan has designed, and do it well. In these moments are the flashes of a devastating half-court offense. It’s not in any of their natures to do it reliably, though, and so the more typical results are what you’d expect: as of now, the Bulls have the 23rd most efficient offense in the league.

There’s an argument to be made that it’s not fair to appraise any team without its ever-important glue guys, and Ball was a massive one for the Bulls. He provided pretty much everything they’re missing: versatile high-end defense, accurate volume-shooting from behind the arc, and a full-court vision as a passer that unlocks the talents of otherwise stale offensive players like Derrick Jones Jr., Javonte Green, and Alex Caruso. The more convincing take, though, is that no well-designed team could possibly suffer this much from the lack of a single player, and particularly not one who isn’t even close to superstardom.

The good news for the Bulls is that it gets easier. They’ve had the toughest schedule in the NBA so far, and the easiest from here on out. Better yet, their path forward isn’t super steep, with the Washington Wizards, New York Knicks, and Indiana Pacers starting to stumble a bit ahead of them. And despite underperforming overall, they’ve banked some signature gutty wins against the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, who’ve been the crème of the league so far this season. They’ve got to be closer to .500 by the end of December to have a chance at making this season matter, though, and meaningfully over that mark by February.

The big wins might be signs that a gradually heartening rise like that is where we’re headed with this team, but there’s also some pretty damning residue in the tea leaf chamber that says essentially the opposite. Watch this team play, and you won’t need a psychological doctorate to detect a certain dissatisfaction on their faces, in their shoulders and gestures. It’s been in their words, at times, too: LaVine, after getting paid, has used his license to publicly disagree with his coach more than once. 

The victorious moments of this year have come out of clouds as bad as the one the Bulls currently live in, having lost three in a row, and by an average of 12 points each. Before they beat Boston and Milwaukee, consecutively, they’d dropped four straight, including a low-mark home loss to the Orlando Magic. So it’s been difficult to believe that the good and bad versions of this team are made up of the same people, and hard to say they won’t reverse course again. But whatever winning they may do next, it’s become harder to keep their fans from assuming it’s just more prelude to a flavor of disappointment that’s starting to feel like it’s settling in.