From being called out by his coach to being blamed for almost every Bulls’ loss, Bulls star Zach LaVine is no amateur to copping the blame. During this article, I am going to be breaking down why Zach LaVine deserves more credit, why he has the ability to be great, and why he does not deserve the harsh criticism he has received over his tenure with the Bulls.
Just over a month ago, on the 22nd of November, the Bulls played the Heat at the United Center. Just three minutes and 27 seconds into the game, Zach LaVine, the Bulls’ best player, is benched for role player Ryan Arcidiacono right away. The Bulls proceed to lose the game 116-108 and tension begins to rise in the Windy City.
Coach Jim Boylen called LaVine out in his postgame press conference, stating that he made ‘three egregious defensive mistakes.’ LaVine responded to the comments by saying ‘“I guess I was to blame for it. I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do.” Many speculated that the relationship between Zach LaVine and Jim Boylen seemed to have gone down the drain after LaVine offered to pay Boylen’s ejection fines just several months earlier.
Just a day after being benched and scoring just 15 points, LaVine responded to the harsh criticism. He scored a career-high 49 points, drained 13 threes (second-most in NBA history), and hit the game-winner to defeat the Charlotte Hornets in formidable fashion. If that is not how great players respond to being called out by your coach just 24 hours earlier, I don’t know what is.
Since that game, Zach LaVine has been on a tear, averaging 27.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 3.9 assists. Those are All-Star numbers. He has been shooting the three at an elite clip, he has hit multiple game-winners, including one against the Los Angeles Clippers, and has proven time and time again that he can take over in late-game situations. Currently, LaVine ranks fourth in the league in points in the clutch. He has put the Chicago Bulls on his back on multiple occasions and led them to big wins in the last month.
If this doesn’t impress you if you are a Bulls fan, I don’t know what will. The whole ‘Zach LaVine is a losing player’ narrative also needs to stop. He is playing his best ball, and the Chicago Bulls are 6-6 because of it in the month of December. However, the fans and media still find ways to make him appear as a scapegoat.
Another thing that is frustrating from my perspective about the Zach LaVine hate is that he didn’t choose to be put into this role on the team, he was forced into it. When playing for the Timberwolves, LaVine was playing great prior to his ACL injury. He averaged a healthy 19 points as a third option playing behind Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Since being traded to the Bulls, he has been forced into the role of being the main scorer and taking over down the stretch.
Why has he been forced into this role you may ask? Because nobody else wants to do the dirty work. Zach LaVine has shown that he can get up for big games and it has been evident his entire career. Look at last season against the 76ers: the Bulls played a very rare national television game, and Zach dropped 39 points, winning the game with a nifty driving layup off a well-designed inbound play. Another example was in his first season with the Bulls when he played his first game against the team that traded him. How did that go? 35 points and multiple clutch shots to ultimately win the game.
After that Timberwolves game, Zach LaVine was seemingly forced into the role of primary scorer due to his ability to create his own shot so well, something nobody else on the Bulls' roster (with the exception of Coby White) can do. When fourth quarters come this season, LaVine is given the ball and expected to make shots, and players such as Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. tend to sit in the corners and defer in the offense as games progress. LaVine is expected to take and make some extremely difficult shots, and when he does make them he is viewed as a hero, and when he doesn’t he is viewed as the culprit, with fans coming to a conclusion that he should be traded right away.
Turns out, Zach LaVine is an incredible shotmaker and has been set up for failure ever since this season began. The Bulls suck at executing down the stretch, and even though LaVine will occasionally miss some bunnies at the rim or some open jumpers, he is not the main blame. He is relied on heavily by not only his teammates, but the coaching staff to win the Bulls games and bail them out even when no plays are called for him and no players are moving without the basketball, which seems to have been the storyline of this season.
Again, let's not act like he is some empty stat-padding losing player too, the Bulls are just two wins out of the eighth seed and are playing well under LaVine as the first option. However, they probably won’t make the playoffs if Jim Boylen does not make some sort of game plan adjustment. The Bulls do well at competing in games, but as soon as the fourth quarter hits they lose their tempo and ultimately lose the games. Why you may ask? Because Zach LaVine is put in the deep end and expected to hit every shot because other players are scared of the moment. It’s almost as if Boylen has told LaVine to get the ball and for everyone else to get out of the way.
When asked about having to take over games, LaVine said, “Sometimes you get the ball and to me, it feels like there are 12 eyes staring at me. I’m not scared to take any shot. I’ve not scared to miss a shot. I’ve taken all these shots before. If I’m the person to blame, I can take it. I’m in the gym working on my craft each night. I always look at myself first before anyone else. We just gotta do better as a unit.” He's clearly taking shots at his teammates, and rightfully so.
That drive and willingness to become a better player is what makes Zach so special. He wants to be great, and he's one of the hardest workers in the league. However, no matter how hard he works and how good at making shots he gets, as long as he is in this system under this coach, he will continue to cop the blame and fail to become an elite player.
Jim Boylen continues to not use him correctly (as well as the entire roster) and is extremely reluctant to take the blame even if a loss is on him not making coaching adjustments. His play designs suck, and his lackluster offense (which the Bulls have a league ranking of 28th in) seems to be getting worse every game. It's not Zach LaVine’s fault that he has been chucked in the deep end. He works hard, he grinds, but yet he has so much pressure on him that no matter how well he plays, if nobody else wants to step up offensively he is almost destined to fail. Zach LaVine is great in catch-and-shoot situations, why not look to find him there more? Zach LaVine is great at cutting to the basket, why not run more plays with him doing that? He is not just an isolation player, and that is what the Bulls seem to have made him.
Oh, and let's not just chuck Jim Boylen under the bus here. The Bulls added assistant coach Chris Flemming to the team in the offseason to fix the Bulls’ league-worst offense last season. How is that addition going so far? Well, we have a very talented seven-footer in Lauri Markkanen barely scraping 40% on field goals, and in terms of offensive rating, the Bulls have improved by two spots to 28th despite having a nicely constructed offensive roster. The Bulls were expected to suck defensively, but yet they have somehow ranked second in the last two weeks and ninth overall league-wide this season. We can give Boylen credit for that, I suppose.
Zach LaVine is known to not be a good defender. However, the improvements he has made have gone unnoticed and the media created a narrative that he can’t play defense needs to be changed. Currently, Zach is eighth in the league for defensive win shares among guards, 13th in steals league-wide, and 14th in blocks among guards. He is having his best season defensively, yet it continues to go unnoticed because media view him as some empty stat player is only good at dunking.
The entire ‘just a dunker’ claim needs to go too. They talk about Zach LaVine as if he is a glorified Terrence Ferguson sometimes. Zach averaged a healthy 24 points last season and is doing the same again thus far. He is eighth in the league for three-pointers made, nearly shooting at a 40% clip, fourth in points in the clutch (ahead of players such as LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard), and tenth in total points throughout the league - probably ahead of your favorite All-Star that plays on a team good for a first-round exit.
Sure, the Bulls not being a .500 team is not LaVine’s fault, but the expectations put on him as a 24-year-old are out of this world. Right now, Zach LaVine is averaging 23.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists to go with 1.3 steals. Let’s dive into the world of NBA stats to see how other stars have done at age 24. Bradley Beal: just 17.4 points. C.J. McCollum: just 6.8 points. DeMar DeRozan: 18.1 points. My favorite, Jimmy Butler: 13.1 points and barely touching 40% on field goals.
The closest comparison at age 24 is James Harden in 2012 when he was around 25.9 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 5.7 assists on much worse splits. And at that point, he played literally no defense. Yes, I know that the roles of some of the players are much different from LaVine and (excluding Harden) are in different circumstances, but the pressure and expectations the fans have on Zach LaVine at such a young age is unnecessary. Anyone to put up the stats he does at such a young age is something which should be valued highly, especially considering he will only get better with age. With that work ethic he has, the sky's the limit.
Zach LaVine deserves to be an All-Star, he deserves a lot of recognition for carrying this shit-show of a franchise, and he deserves better when he is playing alongside passive players who cannot create their own shot and a coach who has never believed in him. He may not be James Harden, and he certainly may not be an All-NBA player, but Zach LaVine has received a lot of blame from the fanbase for reasons beyond him. And let’s keep it in perspective here — he is already a top scorer in the league who will only get better with time (and hopefully a better coach).
Featured Photo: Getty Images