The last month has been a feeding frenzy for the Zach LaVine haters.
As soon as LaVine went down with a foot injury, the Chicago Bulls start winning. They’re playing their best basketball without him, fueling the narratives that he doesn’t play defense, that he’s a toxic contract, and that he is not a winning player.
The optics are not good. And those optics have caused a massive hemorrhaging of his trade value.
Still, the LaVine hate has gone way too far. The criticisms are lazy. And with LaVine trending towards a return against the Charlotte Hornets, he’ll once again have to prove his worth, both to the Bulls and to suitors around the league.
Production and defense
His scoring prowess speaks for itself. Since 2018-19, LaVine is one of 12 players to have averaged 24.9 points per game on 59.6 or better true shooting efficiency (h/t friend of the program Ricky O’Donnell). He’s among the elite of the elite when it comes to efficient volume scoring.
LaVine has always graded out well in estimated plus-minus (EPM), which is considered to be the strongest all-in-one stat available to the public. It uses play-by-play and player tracking-derived stats to measure individual impact on a per 100 possession basis. It avoids using team-based stats in an attempt to isolate a player’s production from the supporting cast. According to the creators, an average EPM is -1.0.
Over the previous three seasons, LaVine’s offensive EPM has carried him to +2.8 overall EPM in 2022-23 (91st percentile), +2.5 in 2021-22 (89th percentile) and +4.2 in 2022-21 (95th percentile). Even factoring in his defense, his overall production is among the most valuable in the league.
LaVine is not a lock down on-ball defender, nor is he a off-ball quarterback. It’s true the the Bulls defense was better with LaVine off the court compared to when he sat (+1.3 points worse per 100 possessions). But that doesn’t mean he’s a sieve either.
It’s incredibly difficult to be a top-five defense in the NBA. It’s even harder with sub-par defenders on the court. But that’s what the Bulls did last season, with LaVine playing 36 minutes per game over 77 games. At the very least, he can be a part of a successful scheme.
In spite of the Bulls putrid play during the 18 games this year for which LaVine was healthy, LaVine’s defensive EPM was -0.1, which again, was not buoyed by the team’s 22nd overall defensive rating during that time.
In 2022-23, his defensive EPM was a slight positive at +0.2. Of the 36 players matched or exceeded his offensive production (+2.6 offensive EPM), only 18 also had a higher defensive EPM than LaVine.
At the very least, he has proven over the last three seasons that he can be a meaningful contributor to an elite defense.
All-Star caliber offensive players who are average on defense should be coveted around the league, and that’s why the Bulls paid $215 million to retain LaVine during his free agency.
Though his $40 million figure for the 2023-24 season seems massive (and it is), Stephen Noh’s salary tool pegs LaVine at $39.5 million, based on his production from last year, including his EPM, games and minutes played.
Still, LaVine’s contract is a big number, and with new CBA punishments looming, teams are always redizent to add big money. But there’s risk in paying up for an expiring player too.
During the regular season, teams, fans and media tend to forget the value of players built for Playoff success. Half-court scoring matters. Doing that without tanking team defense is even more important. And though LaVine hasn’t had much opportunity on that stage, he represents the type of player who should be successful if placed in the right setting.
With the lack of sellers in the marketplace, and the amount of parity in the league’s landscape, LaVine is a good option for teams that want to add scoring. Given the way his value has plummeted, he has the potential to be steal on the trade market, and to make a significant impact in the postseason.
Over the prior two seasons, LaVine finally dispelled the “not a winning player” narrative that followed him throughout his career. But with the way the last month has unfolded, he is now in a situation where he needs to prove those critiques wrong yet again.
In his absence, the Bulls have started to resemble a winning team. And if the last thing remaining on LaVine’s checklist is to “impact winning”, he is now in a good position to do that.
It’s on him to re-discover his All-Star caliber form, and fit into the team concepts that have turned the season around. But both parties playing well and winning is best for everyone involved.
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