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Zach LaVine Never Stopped Getting Better. Now The Bulls Are In The Playoff Hunt.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine’s name was a constant in trade rumors around the NBA. After the Bulls ended last season with a 22-43 record, the expectation was that they would look to be sellers in the trade market, with LaVine as the centerpiece. To make matters worse, the team had followed last year’s outing with a slow start this season, and through the games of Feb. 5 was sitting at 8-13 and near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.


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Now, only a month later, LaVine has helped propel Chicago back into the playoff hunt, currently holding the ninth seed in the East at only two games back from the fourth-seeded Boston Celtics. As the second half of the NBA season gets underway, can the Bulls ride their revamped offense, behind a newly minted All-Star, back to the playoffs?

In his fourth year with Chicago, LaVine has officially inserted himself into the conversation with the best players in the league. He has increased his points-per-game average nearly every season of his career, and currently ranks among the top 10 in points per game and total points scored. His 28.7-point average is fourth among guards, just behind Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry.

Zach LaVine is lighting up the NBA’s leaderboard

Top 10 NBA players by points per game during the 2020-21 season, through the All-Star break

Points
PLAYER TEAM Min FG% Total Per game
1 Bradley Beal WAS 35.7 48.2% 1,053 32.9
2 Joel Embiid PHI 33.0 52.1 905 30.2
3 Damian Lillard POR 36.0 44.5 1,013 29.8
4 Stephen Curry GSW 34.1 47.8 1,039 29.7
5 Giannis Antetokounmpo MIL 34.0 55.7 1,015 29.0
6 Kevin Durant BKN 35.8 52.4 551 29.0
7 Zach LaVine CHI 35.6 52.5 976 28.7
8 Luka Dončić DAL 35.2 47.8 916 28.6
9 Kyrie Irving BKN 35.5 51.0 708 27.2
10 Nikola Jokić DEN 35.9 56.7 977 27.1

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

Aside from his steady development as a scorer, what has been even more impressive about LaVine’s play this season is the spike in his efficiency as a shooter. If LaVine can improve on his free throw shooting percentage, he could be the newest member of the 50/40/90 club: He’s shooting 52.5 percent from the field, 43.5 percent from behind the arc and 85.7 percent from the free throw line this season.

LaVine said he’s also worked to improve other facets of his game, and his production reflects that. His 5.1 assists and 5.2 rebounds per game this season are both career highs. The seven-year veteran is one of only five players this season averaging at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists per game while shooting 50 percent or better from the field.

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“I wanted to take it a step further with my playmaking and my effort on defense,” LaVine said on ESPN’s Hoop Streams. “Just try and become the player that [can do] whatever the team needs to win.”

In addition to stepping up his playmaking for his teammates, LaVine has also worked on the ability to create opportunities for himself by improving on his stepback shooting. His 1.19 points per possession and 52.76 percent effective field-goal percentage on stepbacks rank fourth and fifth, respectively, this season among players who have attempted 100 or more.

LaVine isn’t the only Bull to have elevated his game this season. The seven Chicago players who averaged at least 20 minutes a game both last season and so far during 2020-21 have all seen boosts in their effective field-goal percentage this year.

The Bulls’ regulars are all shooting better

Year-over-year difference in effective field-goal percentage for players who recorded at least 20 minutes per game for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 Chicago Bulls

Mins per game Effective Field-goal%
Player 2019-20 2020-21 2019-20 2020-21 Diff.
Tomáš Satoranský 28.9 20.7 48.8% 62.1% +13.3
Thaddeus Young 24.9 25.3 51.3 61.9 +10.6
Lauri Markkanen 29.8 30.4 51.7 62.2 +10.5
Zach LaVine 34.8 35.6 52.6 61.5 +8.9
Coby White 25.8 33.2 47.8 50.4 +2.6
Otto Porter 23.6 23.3 52.9 54.2 +1.3
Wendell Carter 29.2 26.9 54.2 55.3 +1.1

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

In the first season under head coach Billy Donovan, it’s clear that turning the offense around was a top priority. The Bulls have made the leap from being one of the NBA’s least efficient shooting teams last year to being the sixth-best this season. Chicago shot 44.7 percent from the field during the 2019-20 season, fifth-worst in the league; this season, the team is shooting 48.6 percent. The Bulls are one of only four teams to rank in the top 10 in the NBA in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, free throw percentage, effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. (The other three teams are the Los Angeles Clippers, Brooklyn Nets and the Phoenix Suns.)

The offensive focus is a departure for the franchise, which has generally leaned on dominant defenses in its most recent playoff runs. If the team stays on its current trajectory and makes the playoffs this season, this year’s squad would be the first since the 2008-09 team to enter the postseason with a defensive rating worse than the league average, according to Basketball-Reference.com. 

The Bulls’ 112.3 defensive rating ranks just 21st in the league, according to NBA Advanced Stats, but their offense has kept them afloat. Chicago’s 115.0 points per game are the sixth-highest in the league this season, and this year’s squad has its highest offensive rating since Michael Jordan cut down the nets in 1996-97.

In an interview on ESPN’s The Jump, LaVine credited Donovan for the adjustments he’s made with the team. “He’s brought in a championship mentality,” LaVine said. “I feel like it’s helped me and it’s going to continue to help the group as well.” 

LaVine said that getting this team into the playoffs was a “big focus” for him coming into the season. If he and the Bulls can keep up their recent trends, he could put the team in a position to do just that.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.


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Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

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