Zach LaVine has been a prime figure in NBA news this season.
It began in training camp when the young Chicago Bulls expressed their intentions of rejoining the playoff party for the first time since 2017. It continued when LaVine confidently told the media of his — and teammate Lauri Markkanen’s — February All-Star plans.
“It’s not a lot of pressure because we expect ourselves to go to that level… we ask for that pressure,” LaVine had said. “We want to be known as a great combo.”
It sounded good – and is what you’d expect from a dynamic guard — still only 24 but entering his sixth year in the league. Coming off a 2018-19 season that saw him average 23.7 points per game, there was cautious optimism that LaVine would make the jump he said he was ready to make.
However, things don’t always go according to plan.
The Bulls have sputtered out of the gate, currently 6-11 and 10th in the Eastern Conference standings. LaVine’s counting stats look solid on the surface – 21.2/4.1/3.8 on 42.9 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three – but anyone who’s watched Chicago at much length knows the frustration behind those numbers.
The Zach LaVine Experience culminated this past week. The Bulls went 2-2 and, in those four contests, LaVine managed to show the bliss of his highs and the frustration of his lows. To fully see the rollercoaster ride, let’s take a run through each game.
Nov. 18 vs. Milwaukee
Up against the best team in the conference, LaVine struggled. He finished with 11/8/4 on 4-for-16 from the field, 2-for-7 from three-point range and three turnovers. While losing to Milwaukee isn’t surprising and not necessarily a disappointment in itself, the way the Bulls lost was. Entering the fourth quarter, Chicago trailed 84-81. They were outscored 31-20 in the final frame, leading to the 115-101 loss. The inability to close out games well has been a theme for the Bulls – they’ve suffered similar fates in six of their losses this year.
LaVine’s numbers in this one were particularly upsetting because of his second half. He was 1-for-7 with a net rating of minus-13, including 0-for-2 and minus-10 in only five fourth quarter minutes. Net rating can be a tricky and misleading stat, but in a game where no Bull played over 28 minutes and 10 played at least 17, a minus-10 in a final frame that was lost by 11 is a tough pill to swallow. It’s all the more discouraging considering LaVine’s on/off difference is minus-14.1, in the ninth-worst percentile per Cleaning the Glass.
Nov. 18 vs. Detroit
The Bulls coasted to a 109-89 victory, tying the first quarter and winning the final three. They held Detroit to 34 percent shooting from the field and 24 percent from three. Chicago shot just 43 percent overall but made up for it by hitting 14 of 27 from downtown.
LaVine struggled for the second straight night. He again played about 28 minutes but sloshed his way to 5 points on 2-for-11 from the field. He had the lowest plus/minus of any Bulls’ starter and a paltry 68 offensive rating (His fellow starters posted 129, 124, 115 and 119, respectively.). Chicago won, but LaVine’s individual concerns were there again.
Nov. 22 vs. Miami
Earlier in the day, The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor wrote a scathing review of LaVine. He called him “J.R. Smith with Jamario Moon’s otherworldly athleticism,” and “not a winning player.” The blurb made the rounds and came to a head after the game later that night.
The Bulls lost 116-108 to the HEAT. LaVine went for 15/3/2 and 3 turnovers on 6-for-14 and 0-for-3 from deep. Worse, he had a game-worst minus-19. Most notably, he was benched about three minutes into the first quarter for what head coach Jim Boylen termed “egregious mistakes” defensively.
After the game, LaVine voiced his displeasure. It appeared Boylen explained the benching to the media prior to telling LaVine personally, and he said as much. K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago had his comments here:
LaVine: "I guess I was to blame for it. I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do. I have to take it in stride. What did he say I got pulled for?"
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) November 23, 2019
The internal conflict that plays out in the media typically leads to two diverging roads. Those involved — and the team as a whole — either grow or the relationship fizzles.
In this case, there wasn’t much time to regroup after the incident as Chicago played the next day in Charlotte.
Nov. 23 at Charlotte
After seeing the bad of The Experience the prior three games, LaVine put on a show for the ages Saturday evening. He scored a career-high 49 points and hit a franchise-record 13 three-pointers in a 116-115 come from behind win against the Hornets. The 13 deep ones were also tied for second-most in a game all-time, tying Stephen Curry’s 2013 performance and one behind Klay Thompson’s 14 makes versus Chicago last season.
It wasn’t just the amount of points or threes he hit, but also how he did it. LaVine hit the 13 three-pointers on 17 attempts, making a majority of them on calm corner spot-ups. He also hit three of them, including the game-winner, in the final 45 seconds – a double-pump three, a banked pull-up from 30-feet and the grand finale, where he picked up the loose ball and ran to the line for a fall-away dagger with 0.8 seconds remaining.
LaVine went nuclear and won the Bulls a game they shouldn’t have. Outside of the last-second Devonte Graham turnover, Charlotte largely took care of the ball and hit free throws down the stretch. LaVine just traded their two-point trips for threes instead and stole a much-needed win.
The aftermath led to plenty of talk about LaVine. How good he was, how good (and not good) he’s been thus far, how good he could still be and whether Boylen’s comments Friday lit a fire under him.
Even at 6-11, there’s still a glimmer of hope for Chicago fans – especially after what they witnessed in Charlotte (Coby White impressed in that game as well with 28 points on 12-19 and 4-9 from deep).
“Hopefully this is that turning point for us. Every team has one. This could be a big step for us in the right direction,” LaVine said after the game.
Inconsistency has been the issue, and whether this game can serve as a vehicle for change remains to be seen. In only one week, we saw all LaVine has to offer. The Zach LaVine Experience is one of some incredible highs and just as incredible lows. For LaVine to change the buzz that’s been around him to start 2019-20, he will need to show more of the highs – or at least the middle ground.
Otherwise, Chicago is in for another long season.
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