Chicago Bulls: Is Zach LaVine underrated or overrated? It’s not that simple

Yes, Chicago Bulls wing Zach LaVine is the team’s leading scorer, but can Chicago return to prominence with the high-flyer as its best player?

Over the few seasons, the Chicago Bulls have given their fans little to cheer for. Since Derrick Rose crumbled to the floor clutching his knee in that fateful 2012 playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers, this once-proud franchise has slowly, excruciatingly devolved into one of the NBA’s biggest clown shows.

The 2019-20 season has seen this mess reach full degradation; they’re 19 games under .500 and are only in the playoff hunt thanks to the feebleness of the bottom of the Eastern Conference, have the ninth-worst net rating in the league, are coached by Jim Boylen, a man who acts like he’s auditioning for a Hoosiers sequel, and are still run by a duo that the fans hate so much, they cobbled together money to put up a billboard calling for their dismissal.

Among this mayhem, sixth-year guard Zach LaVine has emerged as a bright spot. Through 59 games this year, the former UCLA Bruin and Minnesota Timberwolf has averaged 25.5 points per game — which easily leads the team and ranks 12th in the league — with a healthy 57.0 true shooting percentage, which lends credence to the notion that LaVine is flourishing in spite of his swampy surroundings.

But as we’ve learned from watching the likes of Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, and others, judging players primarily on their counting stats obfuscates much of the value they add or subtract to the team. Yes, LaVine is a “good” player that excels at putting the ball through the net, but are the things that he’s good at make this team better?

Some of the advanced numbers suggest the answer is no. Among 197 qualified players, LaVine ranks 114th in the league with .095 win shares per 48 minutes (WS/48). FiveThirtyEight‘s RAPTOR model rates him as the 135th most valuable player in the league — behind teammates Kris Dunn, Tomas Satoransky, and Ryan Arcidiacono — and categorizes him as a mere rotation player. And most alarming, the Bulls’ net rating goes from plus-0.3 to minus-4.9 when LaVine is on the floor.

However, other stats view Lavine more positively: he ranks in the top 25 in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and in the top 40 in Box Plus/Minus (BPM). So, which one is it: Is LaVine a benefit or a detriment?

Well, that’s a bit more complicated to answer. LaVine certainly lifts this team up on offense — The Chicago Bulls score 5.7 more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, and he does rank in the top 25 in Offensive Box Plus/Minus — so you can’t hold him responsible for the Bulls scoring 3.8 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league average; that falls on a lack of quality scorers and an offensive scheme that’s insulting to call vanilla since vanilla at least has some flavor to it.

Chicago’s offensive strategy often follows this pattern: run a bunch of pointless screens and handoffs for a while before LaVine has to bail them out. Fortunately, LaVine can do things like this:

Or this off of the pick-and-roll, where he averages an acceptable 0.89 points per possession:

Or in transition, where he’s also quite good (1.18 PPP):

Sure, his playmaking falls well below where it should for a player that has the ball in their hands as much as him and he turns the ball over way too much (he has the 13th most turnovers per 100 possessions, most of which are the result of bad passes like this one or this one), but those drawbacks haven’t muted his positive impact on this end of the court. Defense, however, is another story, though the full story here is far from definitive.

While the analytics differ on how bad LaVine is on the less glamorous end — Defensive RAPTOR places him 190th out of 250 qualified players, Real Plus/Minus ranks him 69th out of 83 point guards, and ranks 129th of 197 players in BPM — they all come to the same grim conclusion.

The on/off numbers are even uglier: the Bulls’ defensive rating drops from 112.9 to 102.0 when LaVine is on the bench. And given that the team is 14th in defensive efficiency, you can’t chalk this up to LaVine simply being a symptom of a larger disease.

But, in fairness, Plus/Minus numbers are as dependent on the quality of the players around you as much as individual performance is and we now know luck on 3-pointers and free throws can skew on/off numbers. So what do his individual tracking and play type numbers tell us?

This is where things get murky. LaVine struggles in several situations: defending spot-up shooters (1.08 PPP, 30th percentile), post-ups (1.15 PPP, 17th percentile), and defending the roll man (1.07 PPP, 37th percentile), though the sample size in those categories isn’t large.

There are some positives, however. Opponents shoot only 41.1 percent against him and 34.5 percent from 3. His 0.68 PPP when defending the pick-and-roll puts him in the 91st percentile. He’s also pretty good in limited isolation assignments (0.75 PPP, 75th percentile). And, as his 6.1 shot contests per game and team defense that pops on the eye test show, he isn’t short on effort.

Here he is fighting through a screen set by some guy named Zion Williamson to contest a Brandon Ingram corner 3:

Here he is staying in front of Ben Simmons, which is no easy feat:

Of course, it helps that he rarely defends the opponent’s best scorer in lieu of playing off-ball and rotating, but as you’ll see in these clips, that comes with its own perils, like when this rotation puts him in Nerlens Noel‘s path:

Or here, where he correctly rotates to stop Noel, but doesn’t retreat back to his spot, forcing Satoransky to scamper to the corner and contest the 3:

And then there are times where he either falls asleep at the wheel and allows a cutter to get through:

Or chooses to understandably conserve energy and not fight through screens:

So, what have we learned from all those stats and all that video footage? Is LaVine as good as his base numbers suggest? Does he actually make the Chicago Bulls better?

Honestly, and I hate to sound wishy-washy about this, but the answer seems to be somewhere in between. He definitely props up a bad offense with his ability to shoot over defenders, finish at the rim, and get to the charity stripe — not to mention his flair for the dramatic — but inhibits his net benefit with his poor playmaking and turnover-prone tendencies.

On defense, he tries hard more often than not and plays well in small, specific doses but lapses a bit too much and can get exposed when offenses focus their attention on him. Add that up, and you get a good-but-not-great player who probably shouldn’t be the top option on a playoff team.

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That said, it’s also fair to ask whether this dysfunctional team can put the pieces around him to make this work. As it stands, the Chicago Bulls don’t have anyone on the roster who complements what LaVine can do: They don’t space the floor particularly well (22nd in 3-point percentage) — making reads off of pick-and-rolls more difficult — and, outside of Satoransky, don’t have many other great playmakers to alleviate some of LaVine’s burden (22nd in assists per 100 possessions). For them to get the most out of their young scorer, that will have to change.

So, is Zach LaVine the guy who can carry the Chicago Bulls back to title contention? Probably not, but if the front office — whether that’s Gar Forman and John Paxson or (hopefully) someone more competent — does their job, he won’t have to.

Next: Chicago Bulls: 3 goals to finish the season
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