Zach LaVine is a Max-level Player

The title of this post shouldn’t require an explanation.

Sadly, though, there are still people out there who don’t believe in this version of Zach LaVine and, as such, don’t want the Bulls paying him anything close to a maximum contract.

The number of non-believers is dwindling by the day, though there’s still a faction of fools that exist. Those doubters range from casual basketball fans who are more invested in the Bears, those still wedded to previous evaluations of LaVine from years past, and doofus beat writers who recoil at the thought of paying LaVine anything more than $25 million.

If you fall into one of these generalisations, well, I suppose I should apologise for offending you. I’d be lying through my teeth, but I could say sorry.

And I am.

Truly.

I feel bad for those who haven’t allowed themselves to realise how good LaVine has become. The mental gymnastics that current day critics will weave in an attempt to make a blundering point is sad. Instead of appreciating an uber-skilled talent who’s continuously made leaps, the above groups of people continue to doubt if LaVine is worth a rich, long-term investment.

He is. Thinking otherwise is dumb, and it needs to end.

Zach LaVine isn’t perfect. He’s not an All-NBA caliber player (yet). He may not even be an All-Star (he absolutely fucking should be). He is, though, a truly great and dynamic scorer.

Players with LaVine’s ability to score the basketball get paid. And so they should. Anyone posting Jordan-esque numbers deserves the bag.

Again, the post should end here. But I know the doubters remain unconvinced — assuming they’ve read past the above initial insults. Anyway, let’s continue.

LaVine is a historically good offensive weapon

In years past, when LaVine posted his 23-25 points on slightly-above league average shooting efficiency, there was merit to the argument that suggested the Bulls guard was nothing more than a score-first player who added little else of substance. Such a stance is no longer valid.

LaVine is now one of the few truly great scorers in the NBA. We’re talking truly elite company. Historic, even.

Here’s why: On the season, LaVine is averaging 28.2 points, while shooting over 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, and 85 percent from the free throw line. The number of players to post those numbers in NBA history?

Three.

Those players?

Larry Bird (x3), Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

Should LaVine maintain his current numbers over an entire season, he — along with Kyrie Irving, Joel Embiid and Durant (again) — will join this rare combination of scoring and efficiency.

LaVine is scoring the ball at an all-time rate. That’s insanely impressive in its own right, but the manner in which he’s efficiently putting points on other teams only adds to his scoring ability.

Thus far this season, LaVine is posting a gaudy 64.5 true-shooting percentage. That’s up from 56.8 percent last season. To give these numbers further context, here is a quick breakdown as to where LaVine’s efficiency grades out against league average throughout his Bulls tenure.

As you’ll note from the above table, in his two previous seasons, LaVine was barely operating above league average in true-shooting percentage.

Granted, those numbers require context: LaVine has consistently been part of poor offensive teams which have forced him into being the lone focal point, while league numbers are normalised across variants of role, team, and scheme.

That point, however, is the exact reason why we should be marvelling at LaVine now posting a plus-7.4 percent delta between his efficiency in comparison to the league itself — LaVine isn’t afforded easy looks by opposing defenses’, yet he’s made a massive leap in offensive efficiency.

When players improve their scoring efficiency at the rate LaVine has, the trade off generally comes at the expense of taking better, cleaner shots in offensive roles with a narrower scope. That isn’t true in LaVine’s case. He still remains the Bulls’ primary offensive weapon, and despite this, his efficiency has jumped significantly whilst maintaining the same level of usage this season (30.5 percent) as last (31.7 percent).

That’s truly absurd, and it’s why we’re witnessing something special.

Improved vision and passing execution

The level of scorer that LaVine has become is rarified air. That alone will get a man paid max dollars — and deservedly so. But the leap LaVine has made in putting the ball in the basket isn’t the only addition to his offensive game.

Once thought of — and perhaps still is by some — as a player who didn’t know how to share the ball among teammates, LaVine has clearly honed his playmaking skills. While a 0.8 jump in assists per game from this season to last reads as immaterial, it’s less about averages and more so the reads LaVine is now making and, more importantly, his ability to execute passes that he previously never could.

To illustrate this point, here are some basic drop-off passes LaVine threw to the rolling big in last night’s impressive comeback win against the Detroit Pistons.

These passes to Wendell Carter and Thad Young register in the box score as assists, but they’re elementary plays any NBA-level guard should be able to make. This next example, however, highlights his growth as a play creator.

From the same game, this pass into Carter is the type of read LaVine previously wouldn’t recognise, and in the odd chance LaVine did see a slight opening in the defense, he didn’t possess the necessary skills needed to throw an accurate pass.

It may not seem like much. He’s still finding the roll-man after a basic pick-and-roll play. That’s true. But this isn’t a simple dump off pass to a rim-roller. No, this is next level offense, turning a trapping defense into a weakness by firing an absolute laser into the heart of the defense.

That’s a difficult pass to make. It still counts the same in the box score, but LaVine wasn’t doing this last season. He didn’t know how. He does now.

Every game he has one of these dimes. It’s become so routine that you have to wonder if there’s scope for him to continue growing as a lead creator?

LaVine has improved on defense

LaVine’s offensive game has expanded to new, unprecedented heights, but he’s made strides on defense, too.

Here’s some more good stuff from LaVine against the Pistons. Moving his feet, staying in front, and stripping the ball-handler. Better still, then talking his shit. This is what you love to see!

While LaVine has always been an OK on-ball defense for several seasons now and has made plays like that above before, it’s his off-ball and rotational help defense which has largely been poor throughout his career.

He still has ways to go in order to before we can ever consider him an average team defender, but throw your eyes on this play from the Bulls’ win against the Pacers on Monday. Lock your eyes on LaVine, where he’s positioned, who his assignment is, and how he rotates over to help.

In the above clip, not only does LaVine stay connected to his man after battling through a series of off-ball screens, he does a good job of keeping one eye fixed to his defensive assignment while remaining engaged with the play on-ball. Because of this, he’s able to rotate over and help on the Sabonis drive.

The result may have been a foul, but he was in the right position to impact the play. We rarely saw this type of defensive awareness from LaVine in years gone by. Remaining locked into where your assignment is while being cognisant of the play that is unfolding, this is the shit that matters on defense.

These are a couple examples that have stayed with me over the last week of games. For more detailed evidence, I highly recommend diving into this excellent video from Stephen Noh.

If not LaVine, then who?

I’ve tried my best to articulate how LaVine has made serious leaps this season. Despite this attempt to convince a shrinking minority to come join those of us who’ve recognised LaVine’s development, my guess is some will remain wedded to previous perceptions, to the point where these folks will balk at the idea of paying LaVine what he’s worth.

I’ll never understand this. Not one fucking bit.

Look around the league. Comparable players to LaVine get paid max dollars. They just do. And they’re worth it.

(Well, not all of them, but most are!)

To represent this point, here’s a list of similarly skilled guards and their respective numbers from this season, per 100 possessions. As you’ll note, LaVine is right there with some of the best scoring guards in the league.

No need to say it, naysayers, I already know your next thought.

OK, if you think LaVine isn’t better than some — or all — of these guys, fine. Think that if you will. You may be right! But whether you like it or not, LaVine is in the same tier of players, no matter what your personal ranking is. The numbers suggest as much.

My point isn’t to get into an argument of shitty lists and rankings, it’s this: excluding LaVine, all of those players are currently earning — or will be once their rookie extension kicks in — max dollars from their incumbent teams.

If these comparable guards can garner max-level deals, so should LaVine!

If you think LaVine is somehow worse than these players and not on their level, frankly, you’re wrong.

If you don’t think any of those players are worth max contracts, therefore by virtue of being in their company, neither is LaVine, again, you’re wrong, you have no understanding of how NBA economics work, and if you were a General Manager of team that refused to pay the market rate for this level of star player, you’d be without a job pretty damn quickly.

LaVine will be an unrestricted free agent after next season. The Bulls still have time to decide what the future holds, but both player and franchise have the ability to agree to terms on a max contract extension, as early as this offseason. Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report wisely explains how this can be arranged. And in a weakened free agent market that has seen many of the league’s stars forgo free agency to take up guaranteed money via contract extensions, the Bulls should prioritise doing the same with LaVine.

Yes, I know. This is the part where the meatheads retort with this old adage: “But he’s not a No. 1 on a championship team!”

WHO FUCKING CARES. THERE’S LIKE FIVE OF THOSE GUYS IN THE LEAGUE. STRAWMAN ARGUMENT, YOU STOOGE!!!!!

Ok, I’m sorry for that outburst (lying again). But people, please, again, look around the league. Dudes who aren’t LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant etc. get paid big deals. Look at this list. They just do. This is how it works if you want to retain players of LaVine’s caliber.

And if you don’t want to pay LaVine because you deem him unworthy — just as some did when we went through a similar ordeal with Jimmy Butler — then who on this Bulls roster is?

If LaVine isn’t worth it, no one on this roster is.

If [insert star better than LaVine who is worth the max] isn’t on the Bulls roster, well, what next? Trade LaVine, routinely tank and cycle through draft picks until the next Michael Jordan comes to save this franchise?

Hope that Luka Doncic decides to leave Dallas for Chicago, despite this franchise giving up on Jimmy Butler and, if it were up to you, Zach LaVine?

THAT’S NOT A PLAN. IT’S FUCKING STUPID.

OK, I’m actually sorry time.

(I’m not)

Look, LaVine isn’t perfect. He’s not a top-10 player. He’s not going to carry the Bulls to title No. 7. Most, if not all, will find common ground on those assertions.

At some point, though, people need to realise he’s made serious strides in his development. How many Bulls can we truly say have improved over the last four seasons? It’s a small list. Hell, LaVine may be the only one on it. He sure as shit is the only one who has emerged as a legitimate star.

The Bulls — and those this post is yelling at — will need to realise that keeping good players in Chicago is actually a good thing. LaVine is currently posting numbers only Jordan has bettered in franchise history. Are you really cool with repeating the mistakes of the Jimmy Butler trade, only this time with LaVine, because he’s in line to earn more than you’d be comfortable the ‘Dorfs paying?

Don’t listen to idiotic beat writers who want to trade LaVine for an oft-injured Victor Oladipo and a middling first-round pick.

Keep him. Pay him what the market says he’s owed. Pay him what he’s earned. Build a good, solid team around him, one which we can enjoy watching over the next 5-10 years.

Bulls fans deserve as much.