If the Chicago Bulls ever held out any hope of salvaging the season after a horrid 5-14 start, it was almost certainly going to be up to Zach LaVine to improve his play and lead his team back into the playoff picture. Averaging a very disappointing (for his standards) 21 points and 3.4 assists per game while shooting 44.3% from the field, LaVine appeared to have taken a major step in the wrong direction before missing significant time due to a foot injury.
In his absence, the Bulls enjoyed a surprising resurgence by winning 8 of the first 11 games without LaVine. This put both Zach and the coaching staff in an awkward position, as they'd now have to reincorporate the All-Star shooting guard to a rotation that was quite clearly performing better without him around,
To my surprise, LaVine seemed to immediately embrace contributing to a winning roster any way he could, rather than imposing his own game for individual success. Zach agreed to come off the bench in his first two appearances back, where he totaled an uncharacteristically low 24 on 19 shots across both games. Despite this, LaVine's improved defense and playmaking helped the Bulls pick up a much-needed pair of wins against the Hornets.
LaVine's willingness to put the team first didn't end there, however, as he was even more impressive during his first start back against the Houston Rockets. LaVine came out firing in the first three quarters but would commit several errors late in the fourth quarter to squander a double-digit lead and allow the Rockets to force overtime.
Zach LaVine's recent selfless play is a major positive sign for the Bulls moving forward.
LaVine recollected himself in extra time, including an and-one layup followed by grabbing the rebound and hitting a pull-up three-pointer in consecutive possessions to retake the lead — one the Bulls would not give up again. It was a close call, but Chicago ultimately prevailed in the end.
Zach finished the night with 25 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 steals, and even a block. He shot a very efficient 8-for-15 from the field and the Bulls outscored Houston by 15 points whenever LaVine was on the court, This was without a doubt the most well-rounded performance from LaVine this season, one that might even convince the front office to keep him around past this year's trade deadline.
Games like these make you question trading LaVine in the first place. There's simply nobody on the trade market who can replace Zach's game-to-game production for the Bulls. LaVine still has to prove that he can buy into what this team is trying to accomplish and do it consistently before Chicago rescinds their trade discussions, but this was a step in the right direction.
Despite LaVine returning to the starting lineup and logging 41 minutes, Coby White proved that he can continue to be an impactful presence by leading the Bulls in scoring with team-highs of 30 points and 8 assists. All five of Chicago's starters scored in the double digits while Patrick Williams was a valuable asset off the bench, contributing his stifling defense and racking up three steals.
These are the players the Bulls must continue building around moving forward. If this roster's veteran leaders must be traded away to make room for their development, then so be it. The Bulls are now 18-21 and have managed to climb back into the 9th-seeded position in the East. Although the Bulls are four games behind the 8th-seeded Magic, they're only five games behind the 4th-seeded Pacers. There's still plenty of opportunity to move up here,
Chicago is next slated to take on the Warriors before playing six of their next seven games on the road. Fortunately, their schedule doesn't feature the toughest opposition, meaning the Bulls still have a good chance to continue gaining ground in the standings if LaVine can continue playing like this.