The Chicago Bulls have won two games in a row for the seventh time this season. Unlike the previous occurrences, though, this time feels sustainable. They’ve found a rhythm and defined roles for the guys shuffled up and down the roster. It has led to two impressive performances against teams that, while depleted, are still very much in the playoff picture.
At the forefront of the Bulls resurgence, this season as well as in the last two games is none other than Zach LaVine. The polarizing swingman has done a lot in the way of changing his narrative this season.
He’s gone from a one-dimensional piece on offense to a multi-dimensional player in his fourth season in Chicago. It’s easy to forget but he’s still only 26 years old.
That suggests there could still be another level to his game that he’s yet to tap into.
Numbers that count for Chicago Bulls star SG Zach LaVine
It’s not a secret that LaVine is having his best season as a pro. After all, he was named an All-Star for the first time in his seven-year career. To that end, LaVine is flirting with a 50/40/90 season thanks to career-high marks from the floor (.507), beyond the arc (.418), and at the charity stripe (.851).
The incredible jump in efficiency comes as he’s seen drops in the two areas most would have considered his strengths. LaVine has seen his free throw rate drop for the third consecutive season. He’s taking fewer shots at the rim, specifically dunk attempts, so there’s causation.
But his fall in dunks attempts comes with a rise in mid-range attempts; a staple of his game the previous regime coached out.
Basically, don’t underestimate the impact of one’s comfort within a system.
Billy Donovan getting LaVine back to doing what made him such an intriguing prospect has allowed the game to come more naturally to him and clearly contributed to his improved passing numbers.
At 22.6 percent, LaVine’s assist rate is currently tied for the second-highest of his career. The only time it was higher was his rookie season when the Timberwolves tried to make him into a point guard. But, remember, this rise (which may not seem like much) came at the same time that he’s improved his offensive output and efficiency.
It’s truly remarkable to see such a leap on so many facets of one player’s game happen all at the same time. And, for those still doubting whether the progress was real or “empty” stats, we got a prime example on Monday night in the Bulls 113-97 victory over the Pacers.
Having an uncharacteristic off-night as he continues to battle through a tweaked ankle, LaVine didn’t force the issue. He shot just 33 percent from the floor, going 6-of-18 from the floor and 4-of-12 from outside. Well, 12 of those 18 attempts came in the first half as he became more judicious with his trigger.
Instead, he turned his focus to facilitating, feeding surging big man Nikola Jokic who easily had his best game in a Bulls uniform. Both had 12 first-half points but Vuc had a double-double and was shooting better from three-point range. Then, LaVine made an adjustment.
Zach went from having two assists in the first half to four in the second. Vucevic got 15 shots compared to 14 in the first half. It wasn’t big, but it was an increase nonetheless and he took advantage shooting 60 percent from the floor and 66 percent from deep. Zach had just seven points in the second half of a game in which the Bulls cruised to victory.
It was the second game in a row LaVine had more assists in the second half of a game; three of his five against the Nets came in the second act.
We’re seeing that a lot of the poor decision-making we saw (i.e. tunnel vision, forcing shots) can be attributed to trusting those around him. He’s shown no hesitation in trusting Vucevic to carry the load.
There’s obviously still room for improvement, though.
He’s turning the ball over too often; averaging a career-high 3.7 per game despite a slight drop in usage from last season. It’s given him the second-worst turnover rate of his career, trailing only that experimental rookie season. This has been his biggest bugaboo this year and comes when his perceived defensive acumen has reverted somewhat.
LaVine recorded a career-best 1.5 steals per game last year. This season, though, that number has been cut almost in half, down to 0.8 per contest.
That’s a greater drop-off than the rise in his turnovers but without the takeaways offsetting (at least statistically) the giveaways, the latter has stood out. Especially as he’s shown so much growth in other areas.
We can nitpick his defensive numbers but let’s not act like there aren’t plenty of players regarded as top-tier while playing basement-level defense. LaVine is better than that most nights so if he can protect the ball, he can take his game to another level. Being able to feed the ball to Vucevic in the paint for easy points (and assists) will only help in that regard.