Lord Help Me, I Miss Zach LaVine

The other day, I was scrolling the timeline while half-paying attention on a conference call that I didn’t really need to be on, but for the expectation that I be on the call. Corporate America, baby!

Anyway, a tweet with a link of Zach LaVine drilling an absolutely absurd 30-foot three-pointer popped up from the Chicago Bulls’ social media intern. It is a delightful clip. The Bulls are down 4 against the Thunder with roughly 20 seconds left to go in the game. They need a quick score. LaVine takes the inbound, casually jogs up the court, and launches an absolute bomb almost immediately after crossing the halfcourt line with second-year stud Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, fighting through a screen and flailing desperately to contest the shot. Splash! 

It’s a perfectly LaVine moment. A shot that’s by-definition “clutch” – close game, significantly helps improve the Bulls’ odds of making the comeback – and incredibly technically impressive, while not ultimately mattering at all, as the Bulls ended up losing by 2. Not only was it a perfectly LaVine moment, it also came in a perfectly LaVine game. He scored 41 points on 56.4% true shooting (exactly league average efficiency this season), while racking up more turnovers (5) than assists (4) and coming in as a net negative for the game (-0.8 per 100 possessions) according to Box Plus-Minus.   

Still, in that instant of watching LaVine pull up from the logo, I was struck with the realization that goddamn, I miss Zach LaVine.

The Chicago Bulls have been my favorite basketball team going as far back as I have memories of liking basketball — around 5 years old — and for most of the time since hopping on the Jordan bandwagon, I have been paying for the front-running sins of my youth. I got to enjoy the salad days of MJ humiliating all in his way, but save for a couple of years in the Thibs-led sun, the Bulls have been frustratingly terrible since prematurely chasing away the greatest player who ever lived. 

It’s gotten so bad that I have settled into just wanting basic competence. I would be perfectly happy with the Bulls being as successful as the Indiana Pacers of the last few decades. I just want a team that doesn’t make major and obvious mistakes, wins somewhere around half or more of its games, and has fun, interesting players. So when the Bulls punted on Jimmy Butler’s prime after multiple seasons where he was unquestionably a top 10-15 player in the league to trade for LaVine, Kris Dunn, and a crappy pick swap, I was incensed about it. I remain upset about this trade, to be clear, but somehow, despite all of the Bulls’ coaching and managerial incompetence, LaVine has emerged as one of the only bright spots for this Bulls’ season. I miss watching him rise and fire 25-footers with multiple hands in his face only to hit them anyway. I miss watching him gamble for steals and then glide in towards the basket in a way that is so smooth that it completely betrays the explosive one-hand hammer dunk that’s waiting at the end of the journey. 

Going to games and sitting in the cheap seats with my pals at the United Center this year, Zach was basically the only reason to spend the $20 for a ticket. He’s pretty obviously overmatched as a number one option and the Bulls’ coaching staff allowing him to carry a 31.7% usage rate – meaning he took a shot, got fouled, or turned the ball over on that percentage of the team’s possessions while he was on the floor – was inexcusable, even given Chicago’s personnel deficiencies. Still, there was something exciting about watching him butt up against the limits of his own talent. His task – willing the trash Bulls to wins in spite of their lack of offensive talent and their hotdog-necked buffoon of a head coach – was Sisyphean, but he kept at it. LaVine is an incredibly hard worker and it is well-documented. He doesn’t bring it up himself in the same way as Jimmy Butler, but this piece from Darnell Mayberry lays it out pretty well. LaVine’s trainer is his father, Paul, and the elder LaVine made Karl Anthony-Towns quit his workouts because they were simply too difficult. That, of course, says something about Towns, about which I’m sure Butler would probably have something colorful to say, but it also shows the level at which Zach is operating in his training.  If you want to understand LaVine’s work ethic, you can just look at the numbers to see his yearly improvement:

(Data via basketball-reference.com. I removed the 2017-18 season where LaVine was returning from an ACL tear and only played 656 minutes.)

You can see the trend pretty starkly. Every single year, LaVine gets better and often significantly so. 

If you think, rightly, that box score numbers overrate LaVine, then I’ll direct you to Estimated Plus-Minus. EPM is the current gold standard all-in-one number that uses per-possession scoring margin and regression techniques, along with a Bayesian prior, including tracking data and box-score stats from NBA.com, that informs the regression. EPM places LaVine in the top 40 players in the league on offense (+1.9 points per 100 possessions), while ranking him in the top 50 in estimated Wins generated (6.0, roughly the same as Donovan Mitchell). You can go back to 2017 without a subscription and see that LaVine, as he did in Box Plus-Minus, has improved significantly year over year. 

Bubble basketball has been cool and I’m glad to have it, but I needed to pour one out for Zach LaVine, maybe the only redeeming thing about watching the 2020 Chicago Bulls. May he get his wish that Jim Boylen is fired. Inshallah.

Enjoy some cool dunks:

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