Through a little over the first quarter of this season, the Chicago Bulls still have an alarming number of questions to sort through if they want to make a playoff push this season.
With the offseason additions of Goran Dragic and Andre Drummond providing more depth than most of us initially believed, the Bulls have the benefit of being one of the deepest rosters that could go toe to toe with anyone in the league on any given night.
However, the problem has been, as it tends to be with most Chicago sports teams, consistency. Despite great wins against Boston (twice), Milwaukee, and Miami, they also have losses to Orlando, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio.
In a season where they’ve now gotten off to an 11-15 start and 3.5 games separate the 5th and 12th seeds in the East, those 3 losses loom significantly.
DeMar DeRozan, one of the lone bright spots, has been continuing to show that he still has a lot to offer in a league that had left him for dead not even two years ago.
However, this has shifted the focus onto the other two stars of the Bulls: Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic – the former now having a new level of scrutiny attached to his name fresh off of inking a 215 million dollar extension this past summer.
Scrutiny of the Chicago Bulls has heightened in lieu of Zach Lavine’s contract.
I said earlier that Zach LaVine has the potential to be a 50/40/90 type of player, and that taking this jump is paramount for the Chicago Bulls to reach the lofty expectations set forth by their front office this preseason.
Through 22 games this season, LaVine has fallen short of that mark shooting 44/36/83 from the field, three, and free throw line, respectively.
He’s also averaging 22 points, a tick down from what he did last year. It’s also important to note that LaVine has been working himself back from injury and has shown glimpses of returning to his old self as of late.
In lieu of the scrutiny LaVine has faced, it’s important to consider the question of how he is struggling, if at all.
Is he producing inconsistently? Is there one aspect of his game severely lacking in wins versus losses? Or is it something bigger – perhaps in the way he goes about getting his numbers? And if it is something bigger – who is to blame: him or his oft-scapegoated coach Billy Donovan?
Zach LaVine has played in 10 wins and 12 losses so far this season, averaging 34 minutes a contest.
Points, Rebounds, and Assists are the most utilized stats used when quickly trying to evaluate a player. Though it’s not perfect, combining them (PRA) would paint an adequate picture of the total contribution of a player to his team’s output in any given game.
Overall, LaVine has averaged a PRA of 30.5 this season. A combination of 21.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.1 assists per game.
Interestingly enough, in both wins and losses, LaVine’s PRA differs by just 0.4, averaging 30.7 PRA in wins and 30.3 PRA in losses. Considering that PRA combines 3 individual statistics, this is a basically negligible difference.
With most of Zach’s PRA tied to scoring, this is the most obvious place to look in order to identify where Zach’s impact has a direct influence on the outcome.
Predictably, LaVine makes 3.6 threes per win, but only 2.2 per loss. Given that the Bulls are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the league, it’s no surprise that when Zach gets more threes to fall, they tend to win.
However, what stands out when looking at his basic counting numbers in W/L splits is how in the Bulls’ 10 wins, he averages 1.3 fewer shot attempts than he does in their 12 losses.
Perhaps there’s still an element of Zach’s “hero-ball” game that shows up in this difference in shot attempts between wins and losses – especially close ones. The Bulls have been involved in a lot of clutch games this season, defined as 5 point margin with under 5 minutes to go, and are 0-6 in such games.
Additionally, he averages one more assist per game in wins versus losses which in combination with a lower shot attempt count could highlight his importance as a floor general in addition to being a pure scorer.
Adding further context, LaVine shoots almost identical percentages from the field in wins and losses but experiences over a 15 percentage points swing from three in wins (45%) and losses (28%).
The swing in both 3-point makes and 3-point percentage between wins and losses appears, on the surface, to have the highest correlation with the Bulls’ odds of winning.
This not only speaks to the Bulls’ general lack of shooting but also their dependence on LaVine to go crazy from three more than any other facet of his game.
For example, when Zach LaVine hits 4+ threes OR shoots greater than 45% from three, the Chicago Bulls are 6-2.
They are 4-10 otherwise. It is evident from all this data that the Chicago Bulls could take the pressure off of his three-ball by either stepping up around him as a team and making more threes or by acquiring players who do.
I often like to look at the duo of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum as an ideal pair for LaVine and DeRozan to emulate. However, DeRozan doesn’t take or make nearly the number of threes either Brown or Tatum do thereby putting even more pressure on LaVine’s shot.
This season, the duo of Brown and Tatum have combined for 57 points per game, including 6 3-point makes on 16 attempts per game. By contrast, the duo of LaVine and DeRozan have combined for 48 points per game, including 3 3-point makes on 9 attempts per game.
It’s no coincidence that the Brown/Tatum duo averages 9 more points per game than the LaVine/DeRozan duo who also happens to be making three more three-pointers per game.
As a result, the Bulls must also be active in the trade market and look at talented shooters that could provide more depth and help around LaVine. Names such as Buddy Hield and Joe Harris come to mind as potential options.
However, for the time being, they need to find better ways of optimizing LaVine’s path to 21 ppg which he has produced regardless of wins or losses. The Chicago Bulls are over-reliant on Zach LaVine’s three-point shooting to fuel their wins.
With LaVine averaging around 8 three-point attempts per game, the need for his 3-point shot to fall established, and the general silence from the front office to solve the problem that they created, the next question logically becomes: what attempts and types of attempts give LaVine the best probability of making a three?
With the similarities between his other counting numbers in wins and losses, there is no doubt that LaVine has been a consistent producer this season.
Yet one has to wonder, given the Bulls’ inconsistent performance as a team, if there is an optimal recipe somewhere for Zach to achieve his same production in a way that routinely leads to wins.