The Bulls were one of the biggest disappointments and most depressing teams in the league through the first month of the season. At 5-14, they found themselves 13th in the East and four games out of a play-in spot.
Chicago has somewhat shockingly run off a three-game winning streak since then, with the potential to make it four in a row when it faces the 3-17 Spurs on Friday. The one common thread in all of those games? No Zach LaVine, who was sitting with foot inflammation and will miss another three to four weeks with the injury, according to Bulls PR.
The timing is notable. As pointed out by The Athletic’s Shams Charania, LaVine could be out of the lineup until Jan. 15, when most players are eligible to be traded. LaVine made a soft trade request in November, and his days in a Bulls uniform seem very much like they’re coming to an end.
LaVine’s absence also gives the Bulls a chance to see if they need a full teardown, or if simply trading the two-time All-Star will solve many of their issues. According to NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson, Bulls lead decision maker Arturas Karnisovas would want to see what the team looks like after a LaVine trade before deciding whether to move other players such as Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan.
Karnisovas, who has been reticent to tear down his core for years, must love what he’s seeing now. But is his team’s winning streak a fluke? Furthermore, what does it mean for LaVine’s trade value given that the team has looked way better without him?
Zach LaVine’s individual offense has taken a step back
Since making his first All-Star team during the 2020-21 season, LaVine has been one of the best scorers in the league. His killer first step, elite finishing at the rim and ability to pull up from 3 have been truly special, and he’s been doing it on a team bereft of spacing for him to work in.
He’s still been good this year, but his scoring and efficiency are way down. He’s hitting far less consistently both at the rim and from 3, making him more average than elite.
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LaVine’s numbers should eventually revert back — he’s been a model of consistency throughout the past few years of his career. At age 28, he should not experience a steep decline yet.
He’s had some great moments as well, such as a 51-point game on only 33 shots and a game-tying fadeaway 3 in the closing moments against the Magic. But it’s undoubtedly been a slow start for him.
Zach LaVine’s defense has been horrific
LaVine has had a reputation as one of the worst defenders in the league for years. He was beginning to shed that label — he was used more for his defense while helping Team USA win a gold medal at the 2020 Olympics and his defense on the Bulls had improved to a little below average over the past few seasons.
This season, LaVine had looked disinterested. There have been handfuls of plays every night where he simply stops playing or checks out mentally. His lack of effort to get back into plays has been glaring.
Watch him quit on this Pascal Siakam seal, for instance:
The problems with the Bulls’ defense have not all been on LaVine, but he’s certainly a major part. They have had communication issues, leading to a precipitous drop from the No. 5 defense last season to No. 20 this year.
With LaVine missing from the last three games, the Bulls are back to the No. 5 defense in the league during that span. Their scheme hasn’t changed much. Rather, they are much more connected and aren’t having nearly as many breakdowns. It’s not as if they’ve played only awful teams, either — their wins have come against the No. 3, 14 and 21 offenses in the Bucks, Pelicans and Hornets.
The Bulls offense has looked much smoother without Zach LaVine
LaVine can be a tough player to fit into a team offense. He takes a lot of 20-plus dribble, zero-pass contested shots. But he is such a great talent that he ends up converting on many of them, even if he is double or triple-teamed. He’s also a dynamic scorer out of spread pick-and-rolls, but that means that his teammates end up standing completely still to open up the middle of the floor for him.
The Bulls’ offense, like most offenses around the league, usually relies on an initial action or two to generate an advantage. The players are then expected to respond to a (hopefully) tilted defense and improvise to generate a good shot.
LaVine is a rhythm scorer. When the Bulls draw up these types of initial actions, too often the result is him holding the ball and erasing the advantage that has been created. The flip side of this is that he can find a good look anyway, even after the defense has reset.
Take, for example, this Gut Chicago play where LaVine runs off two screens to receive the ball:
LaVine holds it rather than continuing to play in flow. That isn’t a one-off occurrence — the exact same thing happened the last time the Bulls ran it, as pointed out by ESPN’s Zach Lowe.
There is a stark difference between that after-timeout play and what the Bulls’ offense has looked like recently. They are playing with much snappier improvisation, keeping the ball moving to find openings against scrambling defenses.
Bulls offense has *looked* a lot smoother without LaVine. They go into their corner offense, get the ball to Vooch at the elbow and go into a high split, then flow right into a pitch to Patrick Williams. pic.twitter.com/xTVEqb4PpX
— Steph Noh (@StephNoh) December 7, 2023
This is reflected in the team’s passing totals — they’ve averaged 29.0 assists per game in LaVine’s absence, significantly up from 21.9 in the 19 games prior. LaVine has had games where he’s looked to pass, but his individual assist numbers for the year are way down.
The issue for the Bulls is that the ball has to be in LaVine’s hands a lot. He’s not as dynamic away from the ball as he should be. He’s terrific on catch-and-shoot 3s, but he takes the least out of any rotation player on the team aside from Andre Drummond.
The Bulls have tried scripting plays to get him cutting, using him in blade cuts similarly to what the Pelicans have done to get Zion Williamson going downhill, for example. He’s great there, too, but his feel is not high enough to improvise them. He’s cut so infrequently that he doesn’t even register on Synergy’s public-facing stats this year after ranking as the second-most infrequent cutter on the team last season.
The Bulls surely want LaVine to play more quickly and better away from the ball. But there has been a seeming disconnect between himself and coach Billy Donovan. He has never gotten over Donovan benching him down the stretch of a game last season in which he was playing poorly, according to Johnson. It’s probably time for a fresh start and a new coach for him.
What this all means for Zach LaVine’s trade value
The big question is what Chicago can expect to get for LaVine when it looks like he doesn’t help his teams win and the Bulls seem desperate to trade him. A few wins to keep fans entertained during a cold Chicago winter are nice for sure, but their future will hinge on the package that they get back in return.
The short answer is that this is potentially killing LaVine’s already-low trade value. He has been battling criticisms that he’s not a winning player, and the data seems to back that up. During their current iteration, the Bulls have been 14-11 in games that LaVine has missed. They’ve been 82-86 in games that he’s played, including 2-4 in playoff and play-in appearances.
LaVine has also faced injury questions despite playing in 77 games last season. A foot injury will do little to quell those concerns. And the team’s meteoric rise in defense will shed an even brighter light on his woes this year.
Some of that narrative is fair, and some is unfair. The Bulls are also playing better because of how horrible the fit between LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeRozan has been. On a different team that could better mask some of his weaknesses, LaVine could very easily break out again.
LaVine is still a very good player and one that can probably be had for a bargain given the dearth of offers for him, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. A trade may be a win-win for both sides, which would suggest that one will happen sooner rather than later.
Source : ESPN.com