Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.
Preseason expectations: The Bulls’ decision to immediately match the $78 miller offer sheet the Kings gave Zach LaVine was telling. Despite an ugly first season in Chicago, LaVine clearly had the trust and commitment from the Bulls front office to be the healthy player they had hoped he could become. Armed with that $78 million contract and the 47th highest annual salary, expectations were set high for the 23-year-old.
He also set them for himself, noting at Media Day that the upcoming season would be different because it was his first healthy offseason in years. That mattered, and there was optimism that LaVine could become the kind of scorer he was prior to tearing his ACL. The potential to form a 1-2 punch with Lauri Markkannen and set into motion the next chapter of the rebuild was a necessity for a Bulls team without much talent around them on the offensive end.
What went right: He proved his worth. We’ll get to some of his shortcomings later, but it’s impossible to deny that LaVine was worth every penny in Year 1 of his new contract. He was 18th in the NBA in scoring – 16 of the 17 ahead of him were All-Stars – and posted career-bests across the board. He was critical in the first six weeks of the season while the Bulls were without Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis. LaVine was the constant in the first half of the season, took on an enormous usage burden, and kept the Bulls afloat.
LaVine is never going to be a pass-first option, and the notion of him running the point at any time for the Bulls isn’t a great one, but he did distribute fairly well. Of note, his pick-and-roll game with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Lauri Markkanen were both beneficial plays. LaVine looked comfortable in that action and it will add another element to his game once the Bulls find a point guard to run the offense. Having ball handlers and initiators on the wing is a bonus, and it looks like the Bulls have a capable one in LaVine.
We’ll also add that his free throws were a nice touch. LaVine averaged 13.6 drives per game, 12th in the NBA among qualified players and fourth among non-point guards. It resulted in 3.2 free throw attempts per game, trailing only James Harden among all players with at least 13 drives per game. LaVine averaged 6.0 free throw attempts per game, a career-best, and had a knack for finding open windows that allowed him to get to the basket. He should only improve in that category as the Bulls add pieces around him to give him more space to work.
What went wrong: LaVine still hasn’t done much to improve his defense. LaVine’s DRPM was 194th among 227 guards, and if advanced numbers aren’t your thing then the eye test proved as much. He still has trouble staying with defenders away from the ball, he doesn’t provide much in the way of help defense and at times he still looks uninterested. Granted, he was asked to do so much for the Bulls offense that he’s allowed to take some plays off on the other end, but he spoke a big game about being able to improve as a defender and we didn’t really see it.
It wouldn’t be as big an issue on another team, but the Bulls are desperate for defensive help. They ranked 28th in efficiency for a second straight season, and for as much firepower as they’ve racked up on offense, the wins won’t come until the defense improves. It’s not on LaVine to be a lockdown defender, but improvements are needed.
The Stat: 19 on 51%
Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have both eclipsed 19 points per game and an eFG of 51% this year. Last duos 23 or younger to do that:— Mark Strotman (@markstrot) March 8, 2019
1. LaVine and Markkanen - 2019
2. Giannis and Jabari Parker - 2017
3. Shaq and Penny - 1995
4. Larry Johnson and Zo Mourning - 1993
Call it cherry-picked but this is still excellent company that LaVine and Lauri Markkanen find themselves in. Whether you think LaVine will become a star or simply be a scoring piece to complement around other top options, his trajectory is promising. In the limited minutes he and Markkanen have played together, it’s clear the two pieces work as a 1-2 scoring punch. This, of course, allows the Bulls to focus on other areas like drafting a defender in Wendell Carter Jr. or adding shooting on the wing in Otto Porter. There are plenty of steps to take during a rebuild, but finding two guys who score efficiently night in and night out is a big piece of it.
2019-20 Expectations: What does LaVine have in store for Year 2? He proved he can be a primary scoring option – though he may cede those responsibilities to Lauri Markkanen – and was an above average distributor on the wing. He can drop 20 points in his sleep, has no problem getting to the free throw line and improved his 3-point field goal percentage. The next step is to improve on his efficiency, which should be helped out if Markkanen can take his own next step and take some of the burden off LaVine. LaVine goes from a nice scorer to an All-Star if he gets his percentages up to 48/39/85 (last year he was 46/37/83).
He'll continue to be called upon as a leader, too, as Jim Boylen gives him more responsibility in such a role. Incredibly, he’ll be entering his sixth season in the NBA this fall. He said multiple times that the Bulls need to learn how to win, and the roster will be looking to LaVine on how to get that done.