Why didn't Zach LaVine receive more national praise last season?
Fresh off a $78 million contract, the 25-year-old averaged 25.6 points on 44% shooting, 5.5 rebounds and 4.6 assists in 36.1 minutes in October/November. He led the non-James Harden NBA in usage rate (32.5%), a slight tick above Kevin Durant (32.1%), Joel Embiid (32.0%), Devin Booker (31.4%) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (31.3%).
He was tasked with carrying a Bulls offense that was without its projected second leading scorer (Lauri Markkanen, elbow), starting point guard (Kris Dunn, knee) and Sixth Man (Bobby Portis, knee). On most nights, LaVine's second and third options were Jabari Parker and rookie Wendell Carter - Carter wasn't even a second or third option at Duke.
And he produced. The efficiency wasn't there - his 47.9% eFG was 24th of 27 players with a usage rate of 27 or higher - but that was to be expected. None of those 27 players had a weaker supporting cast than LaVine, who led the Bulls in scoring 17 of 22 times in that span.
LaVine's usage scaled back when the injured rotation players eventually returned. LaVine's usage rate from Dec. 1 until the end of the season was 28.4%, 23rd highest in the NBA and on par with Kyrie Irving (28.6%), Bradley Beal (28.7%) and Paul George (28.8%).
His efficiency picked up, too. His effective field goal percentage in that span was 54.9%, seven points higher than the putting-the-team-on-his-back-doe October and November. Of players with a usage rate of 28% or better, LaVine's eFG% was 11th of 25 players.
LaVine was born to score. His 23.7 points per game were all the more impressive considering how the Bulls slowed the pace once Jim Boylen took over, and the fact that he managed to shoot nearly 47% from the field after such a heavy October/November was a major positive.
So why didn't LaVine get more attention? Because points aren't everything and wins matter.
The latter isn't really LaVine's fault. The Bulls went 5-18 during LaVine's heavy usage stretch, but that was more a by-product of the injuries and decimated rotation. It would have been tough for Giannis Antetokounmpo to drag the Bulls to a win in late October when Cam Payne scored 15 points, Cristiano Felicio led the team in rebounds and Antonio Blakeney played 22 minutes off the bench. LaVine needed to play flawlessly for the Bulls to win - he averaged 30.6 points in the Bulls' five wins. The Bulls couldn't have won last season.
Offense is creeping back up to all-time highs in terms of pace and points, and efficiency has never been higher. That's good news for LaVine, who topped 30 points 11 times (in 63 games). Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bulls were 6-5 in those games. In the 52 games LaVine played but didn't top 30 points? The Bulls were 10-42 (a 16-win pace over an 82-game season). They were 2-21 when LaVine scored 21 or fewer points (a 7-win pace).
There's a lot to unpack here, beginning with the fact that LaVine really could have used some help last season. Lauri Markkanen's February surge and Otto Porter's arrival helped matters, but the season had been lost long before then and momentum never really picked up when all were benched late in March in the chase for ping-pong balls.
The Bulls will be better next season. LaVine may not average 23.7 points because Markkanen will need touches and Porter is a legitimate No. 3 scorer. Last season the Bulls' No. 3 scorer - of players who began and ended the year with the team - was Kris Dunn at 11.3 points.
That should mean an even bigger uptick in efficiency for LaVine, and it'll also allow him to flourish in other aspects of the game.
There's a debate among Bulls fans regarding LaVine's passing. He averaged 4.5 assists but did so in a high-usage capacity. He was 47th in assists per game and 60th in assist percentage (22.4%). But his turnover percentage was also 12%; of the 28 players who had a usage rate above 27% for the entire season, only Trae Young and Devin Booker had worse turnover percentages than LaVine.
LaVine isn't a bad passer, but he really isn't a good one, either. And that's fine! The Bulls overhauled the point guard position last season, adding Tomas Satoransky and Coby White. The expectation is LaVine's turnover percentage will decrease in, at times, an off-ball role where he isn't forced into making tough passes and decisions. That's just not who he is as a player, and it oftentimes showed.
He showed promise in pick-and-roll action with Wendell Carter and pick-and-pop action with Markkanen. Getting to pick and choose those spots with his big men will be a boon for the Bulls offense. It felt forced a lot of the time last season, and defenses could key in on the action knowing that the other option for the Bulls was a Ryan Arcidiacono jumper or Shaq Harrison cut to the basket. Not exactly a tough decision.
LaVine gets better as the Bulls' roster gets better. That sounds an easy enough concept, but it's even more true for a player whose perception unfairly took a hit because of his supporting cast. LaVine was asked to play a role he wasn't entirely fit for - it's REALLY tough to maintain that kind of usage rate and win - knowing team success was going to be nearly impossible.
He has defensive issues. They really didn't get better last season despite him pledging to improve off the ball. But again, consider the toll his offensive load took on his body on a nightly basis. Maybe it's a bit of a stretch, but a lower usage rate means a slightly smaller workload which means more energy over the course of 48 minutes.
LaVine was one of the few carry-overs who will have a similar role this season as he did a year ago. But a new roster, a new rotation and a new coaching staff could mean a new LaVine. Expect the numbers and efficiency to remain where they were, only this time around he'll get his due.