As Zach LaVine’s return from a serious knee injury draws closer, anticipation among the fan base grows. Ahead of his debut, forecasting how head coach Fred Hoiberg will reintegrate the athletic guard into the Bulls rotation is of great interest.
As eager as fans may be to see LaVine don a Bulls jersey for the first time, his assimilation back into the NBA should be a slow one. The Bulls will undoubtedly be conservative with LaVine. And they should – there is no pressure to win.
It would be of no surprise to see LaVine return on a minutes restriction – initially capped at 15-20 minutes. This will make managing the rotation easier for Hoiberg. But the coach will be challenged by both player and management in how and when his minutes will be ramped up.
Looming in the background, of course, is LaVine’s contract status. Chicago’s newly-acquired shooting guard will be keen to play as many minutes possible to justify a rich, multi-year deal in free agency. Bulls management, from all reports, are invested in LaVine long-term. However, they will not risk rushing back the dynamic dunker just so he can drive up his value in July.
At some point, though, the front office will need to see LaVine play extended minutes to accurate gauge his worth to the franchise.
To accommodate an eventual increase in workload, a teammate already in the rotation will need to make way for LaVine. Who that should be is up for debate. The profile of players and their respective strength and weaknesses should be what dictates Hoiberg’s final rotation.
For simplicity purposes, we can categorise LaVine as an efficient offensive player who predominantly scores by using his potent jump shot. He can also be a serious threat in transition. To date, he has yet to show an ability to create offense for others. Defensively, he’s a liability and will not be capable of guarding the opponent’s best wing scorer.
With this generic outline in mind, pairing LaVine with someone capable of guarding an elite offensive perimeter player is ideal; LaVine is too slight of frame to play small forward, so his wing partner must. For this reason, one of Justin Holiday and David Nwaba should be on the floor at all times with LaVine.
Given his veteran status and leadership role on the team, Holiday will start at small forward. Nwaba, who recently had his deal guaranteed for the remainder of the season, should be the first wing off the bench.
It’s expected that Holiday and Nwaba may see a reduction in some of their minutes once LaVine returns, though it will be marginal reduction at best. Both are still needed in 5-man units, and with LaVine, will form Hoiberg’s three most used wing players.
Building a rotation with this premise in mind, if we assume LaVine will, at minimum, eventually play 28 minutes per game, with Nwaba and Holiday both conservatively playing 25 minutes each, Hoiberg will have an additional 18 minutes to fill at shooting guard and small forward.
Denzel Valentine has been starting at shooting guard in LaVine’s absence. His shooting ability and status as last season’s first-round draft pick should be enough to make the sophomore the fourth wing in Hoiberg’s rotation. Valentine will likely receive the balance of the minutes remaining, pushing Paul Zipser back into third string units.
Valentine has shown glimpses of progression this season. It’s important Hoiberg continues to foster his development, even in a new, limited role. What the coach must not do, though, is be tempted to play LaVine and Valentine together. In many ways, Valentine is a less-dynamic version of LaVine: a player overly-reliant on his jump shot who can’t defend in space. If Hoiberg were to use LaVine and Valentine as his wings, it would crater any chance of adequately defending the perimeter.
Player compatibility will be critical for the Bulls as they begin to incorporate LaVine with his teammates. To simplify the process, a rotation can be established by using a matrix.
Yes, I did include this matrix in this post because I have a sick and twisted way of viewing spreadsheet data as art. But more importantly, it does help define and visualise how the Bulls should manage their wing rotation upon LaVine’s return.
In theory, most of the available options on the perimeter can be paired together. That’s not to say they should. Zipser may provide some semblance of defense and shooting, but he hasn’t played well all season, and should barely see the floor once LaVine returns. Ideally, LaVine and Valentine won’t play together. Their minutes should be staggered and accompanied by one of Holiday or Nwaba. The latter duo can share the floor together as there is enough versatility on both sides of the ball to justify their pairing.
If combining your love for basketball and Excel to isn’t your thing, seeing an exciting young prospect debut for the Bulls probably is. How Hoiberg and the Bulls brass manage LaVine’s return will be the biggest storyline for the remainder of the season.
If all goes well, the Bulls may have found their long-term answer at shooting guard.