After a 25 PPG season last year, Bulls guard Zach Lavine is enjoying an even better 2020-21 campaign.
Lavine is averaging 27.0 points per game on very efficient shooting. He has improved on each of his FG%, 3PT% and Free Throw %, while maintaining roughly the same volume. In fact, you could make a case he has been the best scoring guard in the league:
Bradley Beal currently leads the league in scoring at almost 35 points per game. However, as talented as Beal is, he has one of the highest usage rates in the league and takes the most shots per game (24.9) by a wide margin.
Damian Lillard, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Devin Booker, and Celtics breakout star Jaylen Brown are all on this chart. But it is Zach Lavine who has been the most proficient scorer thus far.
It’s no question Lavine has forced himself into the conversation as one of the best scorers in basketball. However, the Bulls have still struggled to find success during his time in Chicago.
While the Bulls haven’t been a good team throughout Lavine’s career in the Windy City, there is a puzzling trend where Chicago is actually better when Zach is off the court.
This season, the Bulls net rating is 15.0 points worse when Lavine is on the floor. One could very easily brush this off as meaningless due to small sample size (only 17 games worth), and he or she would be completely justified in doing so. However, we actually have a much larger sample size of similar results.
Zach Lavine is in his 7th season in the NBA. In 6 out of 7 seasons, his teams have been better when he isn’t playing:
A sample size of 17 games this year is far too small to draw any meaningful conclusion. However, 370 games, across a 7-year span? Now it’s interesting.
Am I suggesting Zach Lavine isn’t a good player? No. Am I suggesting the on/off number is the only thing that matters? Of course not. Analytics are simply a tool in the toolbox of criteria used to evaluate players. It shouldn’t be the entire toolbox, and that’s a reflection of a much larger conversation that needs to be had on how much of a role analytics should play in decision making.
With that said, this trend is certainly enough to warrant having a conversation about whether or not Zach Lavine is a winning player. Particularly when his contract is up after next season, and new Bulls execs Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley have to decide how much to pay their star.
How can it be that Lavine is such a prolific scorer but, at least according to the numbers, is not a positive impact player? Two things that many could point to would be defensive struggles and lack of playmaking ability.
As effective of a scorer as Lavine is, his ability to create for others leave a lot to be desired. The last three seasons with Chicago, his turnover percentage has been in the 21st percentile or worse, meaning he was only better than 21% of players in this category (per Cleaning the Glass). He has had 4 or more turnovers in 11 out of his 17 games, and 5 or more turnovers in over half the games this season.
However, this is where stats and analytics meet the “eye test”. Below are clips from the Bulls-Lakers game in early January. Against the #1 defense in the NBA, Lavine had 6 assists with no turnovers, making quick, decisive passes out of the pick-and-roll all night:
It’s clear from both the box score and the tape that Lavine has made a much more concerted effort to become a primary playmaker for this Bulls team. He’s shown he can actually do it, too, albeit in flashes. This has come with growing pains, but if Lavine can become more and more comfortable in this role as time goes on, he’ll become a far more well-rounded offensive player and raises the ceiling of any team he’s on.
The same can be said for his work defensively. Lavine has never been a plus-defender on any team he’s been on. It’s incredibly hard to evaluate individual defense with any sort of “catch-all” stat, but his teams are usually worse defensively with him on the floor. He has expressed frustration in how his defense is viewed in the past, but the complaints were well-warranted. However, like his playmaking of late, Lavine has shown an increased focus and effort on the defensive end of the floor. After watching Luka Doncic explode for 30 first half points, Lavine did a great job in the second half, with him, Garrett Temple, and Patrick Williams working together to hold the MVP candidate to only 6 points after the intermission.
Is he a good defender? No, absolutely not. But it’s clear this year he’s realized the importance of it and seems much more focused on succeeding on that end of the floor. And, in all honesty, with athleticism like Lavine has, simply making more of an effort can make a world’s difference.
By the numbers, Lavine is an uber-talented scorer who lacks impact in other areas. But it’s clear under Billy Donovan that he’s trying to change that and become a more complete, winning player. The next two years will be crucial in determining Lavine’s future.