"We're going to need each other, we're going to have to buy in, and we're gonna have to hoop."
This is a quote from Kris Dunn, in ESPN’s Malika Andrews’ story detailing the Bulls 108-89 loss to the Sacramento Kings on Monday night. Dunn was referring to to how the team will deal with any adversity that arises on the trip to Mexico City, but he might as well been talking directly to Bulls guard Zach LaVine.
While former No. 7 overall pick Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. are inexorably linked as the frontcourt of the future, Dunn and LaVine are linked as the backcourt of the future, but have much to prove in the 2018-19 season.
In 2017-18 the Dunn-LaVine pairing saw 308 minutes on the floor together. That duo has played 38 minutes together so far in 2018-19.
Here are the advanced numbers from this season compared to last for the LaVine-Dunn pairing, with an obvious small sample size alert:
2017-18: 97. 9
True shooting percentage
The defense in Chicago has been dreadful all the way around but they currently sit at 23rd in the league in defensive rating, an improvement over their 28th finish last season. That side of the ball will get better as players get familiar with what their coach expects of them—and who their coach is for that matter—and as defensive personnel on the roster improves. But offense is a different story. With a player like LaVine in tow, you would expect the Bulls to be a decent offensive team but he is largely inefficient, producing just over 100 points per 100 possessions.
Dunn’s arrival should seriously turn things around. We didn't get to see that much of the duo on the floor against the Kings since Boylen brought Dunn off the bench, but Dunn showed the ability to put pressure on the rim. This is something the Bulls have lacked this season outside of LaVine:
Simply having another guard who makes opposing bigs move side-to-side will take a lot of pressure off of LaVine, who is driving to the rim more times per game than LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.
LaVine is a beast offensively, sans his incredibly high turnover rate. The only other thing dragging him down this year is a putrid 3-point percentage (31 percent), which may be linked to his gargantuan, Russell Westbrook-like usage rate. Dunn will of course help lower his usage rate, but the most important thing for Jim Boylen and his staff to look at is how Dunn can help change LaVine’s shot profile.
Dunn’s first appearance this season was a 115-109 loss to the Dallas Mavericks. In that game Dunn had 7 assists and LaVine scored on 34 points on an insanely efficient 73 percent shooting from the field. In Dunn’s second appearance on Monday against the Kings, he had 6 assists as LaVine scored 19 points on 53 percent shooting. The eye test would say that LaVine is attacking less from the midrange with Dunn in the game and that would be a very welcome occurrence.
Per Basketball-Reference, LaVine is shooting a scorching 61 percent on corner 3-pointers, yet they account for less than 10 percent of his total shot attempts!
So it is fair to say LaVine (and Dunn) will need to adjust to make this backcourt work, as they both—theoretically—have the skill sets to make up for the others’ weaknesses. Once Dunn gets his confidence level back to where it was last season, we will see defenses pay even more attention to pick-and-rolls when Dunn is involved. LaVine will need to take notice of this, and attempt more catch-and-shot jumpers, rather than looking to attack off the dribble. This is just one example of where LaVine would’ve been better served taking a jump shot off the catch:
NBA.com supports this notion, with LaVine shooting 37 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and a rough 28 percent on pull-up 3-pointers. And as you could probably guess, he is taking way more pull-up jumpers despite that being the less efficient shot for his game. This isn’t all LaVine’s fault, as he has been doing an admiral job carrying a heavy offensive burden for a ridiculously undermanned team.
But with Dunn back, LaVine has the carte blanche to be patient in searching for his spots to attack.
This should allow him to conserve energy (for defense) and slow down his thinking process so he is not always pressing to score. When defenses are expecting LaVine to commit to a straight-line drive, the roll-man is open often. And he is finally starting notice this, as he did when the Bulls ran an excellent “empty”—all three players not involved in the play stationed on one side—pick-and-roll that took advantage of the lack of weakside help defense.
LaVine has the potential to be the one of the league’s best shooting guards. But to do so he has to let his teammates help him.