Through the NBA’s first three weeks there wasn’t a better player at attacking the rim than Zach LaVine. The 23-year-old looked spry, healthy and aggressive, and was drawing fouls at a rate that would have made even James Harden blush.
Well, LaVine has hit his first speed bump of the 2018-19 season. With Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Bobby Portis all on the mend (had you heard those three players were injured?) LaVine has taken on a ridiculous burden of leading the Bulls offense; he’s currently second in the NBA in usage, behind only James Harden and Russell Westbrook and ahead of names like Giannis, LeBron, Curry, Embiid and Durant.
For three weeks that was fine. LaVine was hitting everything in sight, passing like we hadn’t seen since his rookie season when he played primarily point guard, and attacking the basket, ranking near the top of the league in trips to the free throw line.
LaVine was shooting a wild 69.6 percent on 8.0 attempts per game inside 5 feet through Oct. 29, third among guards to only Donovan Mitchell (73% on 6.2 attempts) and Devin Booker (70.8% on 6.0 attempts). To put those numbers in perspective, LaVine ranked just ahead of Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook in the category.
It’s where LaVine was at his best, even as he continued to pore in 3-pointers at an absurd rate and, for the most part, take care of the basketball. He lived at the rim, and if he wasn’t finishing there he was drawing fouls and getting to the free throw line; through Oct. 29 he was ninth in free throw attempts per game (8.0), a slight tick above LeBron James (7.7).
But something happened after that pitiful loss to the Golden State Warriors on Oct. 29, and it’s sent LaVine into an ugly shooting slump that he hasn’t been able to get out of in the eight games since. Yes, teams are doubling LaVine and pressuring every time he plays in pick and roll.
But consider: LaVine has taken nearly the same number of contested shots per 36 minutes (11.0 vs. 10.9) and hasn’t taken all that fewer drives to the basket per 36 minutes (14.4 vs. 12.2) during his slump. It may seem like it on the surface, but LaVine’s game hasn’t changed that much as teams have keyed in on him.
Of course his 3-point percentage being as low as it is – 25.6 percent on 5.9 attempts during his slump – has had a huge effect, but the answer might be in what’s happening to LaVine on those drives to the basket lately.
He was a magnet the first seven games of the season, drawing a foul on 15.4 percent of his drives to the basket. He shot 55 percent on those drives and got to the free throw line 3.7 times per game on drives alone. 9.6 of his 28.1 points per game were coming on his attacks to the basket.
But his slump has affected the best part of his game. It certainly could be fatigue, or simply bad luck, but LaVine’s shooting numbers on drives have dipped to 44.6 percent, he’s drawing fouls on only 4.7 percent of them and is getting to the free throw line fewer than one time (0.8) off those drives. The volume of drives still have him averaging 7.0 points on them, but it’s a stark contrast. And when you combine his pedestrian – for his standards – numbers at the rim with that ugly 3-point shooting, it’s a recipe for disaster.
He’s even passing less on drives during his slump (22 percent of the time compared to 28 percent during his hot stretch), perhaps once again feeling the need to take over on offense for his shorthanded group.
Or maybe he’s just not getting calls. LaVine was issued a technical foul in the second quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics after he felt he was fouled by Semi Ojeleye. LaVine didn’t get the call, clapped his hands at the official and was given the T.
It’s been a frustrating two weeks all-around for LaVine, but his inability to finish at the rim like he had the first three weeks of the season has led the charge. It’s who LaVine is as a player and where he’s most effective for this Bulls team, which is why his attempts have remained the same.
Perhaps he isn’t getting the same leap on those drives given the uptick in minutes, or maybe defenses are figuring out how to better defend him without fouling. Whatever the reason, LaVine will need to figure out how to better attack defenses, especially if his 3-point shot remains off. It’s either that or more losses will continue to pile up for this undermanned group.