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.”