Zach LaVine accepting of, thriving in heavy shouldering of Bulls offense

Zach LaVine accepting of, thriving in heavy shouldering of Bulls offense

No team has asked its go-to option to shoulder a bigger load than what the Bulls have asked of Zach LaVine. Granted, the 23-year-old scorer was going to be asked to do what he did best after signing a lofty four-year, $78 million deal in July. But where LaVine was expected to have Lauri Markkanen by his side as the Robin to his Batman, and expected to have Kris Dunn running the point to let LaVine work off the wing, neither has been the case.

Markkanen remains sidelined with an elbow sprain, while Dunn is at least a month away from returning after spraining his MCL last month. What it’s done is put LaVine in a situation where he’s been asked to both run the offense as the primary ball handler and shoulder a massive scoring load that – while he’s certainly enjoying – isn’t ideal for ay team.

Then again, the results past the Bulls’ 3-9 record have been outstanding. LaVine enters the weekend fourth in the league in scoring and is setting career highs in points, field goal percentage, 3-pointers, free throw attempts, free throw percentage and assists. He’s been an offensive machine for a Bulls team missing its projected second and third leading scorers (Markkanen and Dunn), Sixth Man (Bobby Portis) and its best 3-point shooter from a year ago (Denzel Valentine).

“I’ll do whatever I gotta do to try to put points on the board or help us win,” LaVine said before Friday’s practice at the Advocate Center. “If that’s scoring, facilitating, rebounding, whatever it is. It’s scoring for right now. I’ll continue to do that until we need something else.”

The fact that LaVine’s efficiency has maintained is made doubly impressive when considering that only Giannis Antetokounmpo, considered by many to be the current MVP frontrunner, and Russell Westbrook have a higher usage rate than LaVine’s 32.9 mark.

A year ago, thinking of LaVine as ranking third in the league in usage would have been a nightmare. He took tough shots, settled for jumpers and was a woeful passer. But it’s incredible what a healthy offseason and newly found confidence will do for a player’s game.

LaVine currently ranks 15th in drives per game (13.9) and of the 17 players averaging 13 or more drives per game, LaVine ranks first in drawing fouls (9.6 percent of the time), fifth in turnover percentage (4.8 percent of the time) and point percentage (he produces points on 62.9% of his drives). He’s going to the line 2.3 times per game on those drives, fifth best among those drivers and just a slight tick below James Harden’s 2.4 attempts.

Through four seasons, 28.1 percent of LaVine’s attempts were taken between 0 and 3 feet of the basket. This season, that number has skyrocketed to 39.8 percent, and doesn’t take into account all the free throws LaVine has drawn. The Bulls have singlehandedly won two games – Charlotte and New York – thanks to LaVine attacking the basket and drawing fouls in the final seconds.

“He’s really improved in the area of attacking the basket,” Hoiberg said. “You can see his free throw numbers are up, his finishing is better at the rim, he’s not settling for as many shots as he did a year ago and I think a lot of that has to do with the confidence that he has with his health.

“Zach is in a great rhythm on the offensive end.”

LaVine is shooting a career-best 46.1 percent from the field, nearly 8 percentage points than last year’s ugly run, and that number should only improve as Dunn, Markkanen and Portis work their way back from injury. Until it does, LaVine will be asked to not only stay aggressive but also, at times, take difficult shots.

Case in point, LaVine buried three jumpers late in the fourth quarter of the Bulls’ eventual win over the Knicks on Monday that Hoiberg laughed were “not great shots.” But such is life for the Bulls right now, and with the aggressive drives to the basket will come some off-balanced jumpers that produce some ugly results.

Only the Hornets have a larger discrepancy between their leading scorer and No. 2 scorer (Kemba Walker is averaging 14.6 more points than Malik Monk; LaVine is averaging 12.6 points more than Jabari Parker).

It’s a balance the Bulls will have to find between good shots and staying in games. For now, it’s tilting toward the latter.

“It is a little bit of a balance when you've got a guy who's playing with that kind of confidence on the offensive end, plus we understand he's a guy that has to have big nights for us,” Hoiberg said. “He's grown into that role, it's one that he's never been in before, but he seems very comfortable in it. Being the go-to-guy, it's an adjustment, but we like the way Zach has handled it so far.”

2020 NBA Draft Lottery going virtual, breaking Chicago's two-year host run

2020 NBA Draft Lottery going virtual, breaking Chicago's two-year host run

It’s felt pre-ordained for months now. Now, it appears it’s decided.

No, the Bulls didn’t draw the seventh pick in the 2020 NBA Draft (yet). But The Athletic’s Shams Charania did report Monday afternoon that the lottery scheduled for Aug. 20 will take place virtually. All 14 teams ‘in attendance’ will be allowed to ‘send’ remote representatives. The event will presumably be televised, but details haven’t emerged on that front yet.

It’s a logical gameplan given the COVID-19 pandemic’s ongoing nature, and the acclaim received by virtual draft showcases broadcast by the WNBA and NFL while live sports in the United States were effectively paused.

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The news also sends a few ripples in Bulls world. For one, who will rep the team, in this, its third consecutive lottery appearance? Michael Reinsdorf and Horace Grant manned the post in 2018 and 2019, respectively. But for this year? Benny the Bull would be sure to bring the energy. On the heels of the summer of “The Last Dance,” perhaps a dynasty-era contributor could get the call. Or maybe a newly-minted front office face instead? Time will tell.

And, as our K.C. Johnson pointed out on Twitter, this development also marks the end of a two-year streak of Chicago hosting the lottery in 2018 and 2019. The city has long housed the combine.

Here’s what Adam Silver told NBC Sports Chicago in February when asked his impressions of Chicago as a host-city for the lottery:

We have been very pleased in Chicago. Our community comes together in Chicago for our predraft camp and combine. It made perfect sense to also conduct the draft lottery there. And that was something that Mayor Emanuel never stopped reminding me of. Things can potentially change over time. We are enjoying being in Chicago. Because of the geographic location, it’s more convenient for our teams to be in a more central location. And Chicago, for the same reasons that makes it a fantastic All-Star host, has all the accommodations you need for our teams when they come together for our combine. My anticipation is we’ll be in Chicago for a while. And the city has been terrific to work with.

Silver made that comment before All-Star weekend in Chicago, but all of the above virtues translated. Though Bulls representation was limited, no one would deny Chicago played a splendid host for the festivities.

The Bulls enter this year’s lottery locked into the seventh-best odds (7.5%) at nabbing the No. 1 pick, and a 32% chance of vaulting into the top four. 

Slots No. 1 through No. 8 in the lottery standings are set with the teams excluded from the NBA’s restart. Slots No. 9 through 14 will populate at the end of the play-in round, when postseason seeding is officially set. Teams that started the restart as a top-eight seed in either conference can fall into the lottery if they miss the playoffs, but the ultimate order of the lottery odds will be decided by pre-hiatus record (meaning, for example, that if the current standings hold and the Phoenix Suns finish with a better record than the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings, but miss the postseason, the Suns would own better lottery odds than the Pels and Kings by virtues of each team’s pre-hiatus record).

All of which is to say, clear your calendars for next Thursday. After that, rumor and speculation are sure to swirl until the draft itself, which, as of right now, is reportedly scheduled for Oct. 16. The status of the combine remains up in the air, though ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported July 23 that the league is polling teams on which players should be invited to the combine if one takes place.

For the Bulls, helmed by a new front office regime and facing a moment of reckoning in the current rebuild, this year’s draft process is an especially crucial one.


Bulls' Top 10 Centers in franchise history

Bulls' Top 10 Centers in franchise history

NBC Sports Chicago is counting down the top 10 Bulls at each position in franchise history.

We've hit the point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. And last, but certainly not least, the men in the middle. The centers.

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Defensive anchors, multi-skilled hubs and blue-collar tenacity abound in these rankings. And plenty of hardware — both of the championship and individual variety.

We hope you've enjoyed this trip down memory lane. Without further adieu...

Bulls' Top 10 Centers in franchise history