Derrick Rose didn’t mince words.
Ahead of the 2010-11 season, he made it clear he wanted to be recognized as the best player in basketball and hit his mark eight months later when he was crowned the youngest MVP in league history.
Zach LaVine hasn’t set his own bar quite that high. At least not explicitly.
But like Rose before him, why can’t the sequel to LaVine’s first All-Star campaign be him walking away with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy this season?
Why can’t he be the MVP of the league?
Why can’t he be the best player in the league?
Why can’t he do that?
If ever there was a time to feel bullish about LaVine and his ceiling it’s right now, as he enters his eighth season hot on the heels of his most sensational solo act to date.
Not only did he beef up his scoring average (27.4) for the third year in a row, but he also set career-highs in field-goal percentage (50.7%), three-point percentage (41.9%), free-throw percentage (84.9%), rebounds (5), and assists (4.9).
And he did so while spending the majority of his time with two former lottery picks who never caught up to expectations, a third who had too much on his plate, and a fourth whose biggest adversary was his own passivity.
How’s that for ice skating uphill, huh?
And yet, even as the be-all and end-all of every opposing defense’s game plan, LaVine still found a way to break loose.
(He was deadlier than Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić, and Jayson Tatum in isolation; Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell, Damian Lillard, and Steph Curry in pick-and-roll actions; Duncan Robinson, Bradley Beal, Jamal Murray, C.J. McCollum, and Joe Harris on dribble handoffs; Ja Morant, Kyrie Irving, Devin Booker, and Russell Westbrook in transition; Khris Middleton, Paul George, Buddy Hield, and Michael Porter Jr. off screens; and Rudy Gobert, Zion Williamson, and Nikola Jokić on cuts.)
Imagine how much more dangerous LaVine will be now that Nikola Vučević, DeMar DeRozan, and Lonzo Ball are all wearing his colors.
DeRozan’s a menace inside the arc who picked up some new playmaking tricks during his time in the Alamo City. In fact, his assist percentage would’ve been tops on the team last season.
Ball’s a scalpel in transition whose fugly-to-functional shot mechanics and ability to keep a defense off balance have made him a viable weapon in the half-court, too.
While admitting Vučević’s test flight with LaVine didn’t take off as expected last spring—thanks in large part to a short supply of practice time and injuries that limited them to spending just 378 minutes out of a possible 1,392 minutes on the court together—his fit alongside LaVine as a rolling and popping dance partner still feels tailor-made.
As does this roster for success.
It hasn’t taken three preseason games to see what Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Artūras Karnišovas and General Manager Marc Eversley had in mind when they decided to rebuild this team with LaVine as its foundation.
Sure. The Bulls opponents have been the play-in hopeful Cavaliers and Pelicans, but the proof of concept is there for the taking.
Simply put, with the burden of shot creation no longer his alone to bear, LaVine has been able to flex his off-ball muscles more often.
But, the offense being carpooled doesn’t mean LaVine won’t be the driving force behind the distance the Bulls travel this season. Even with DeRozan and Vučević eating into his shot attempts, he’s still been the team’s leading scorer. And (surprise!) he also owns the best defensive rating of any Bull to log more than 17 minutes a game this preseason.
Yes, defensive metrics are tricky buggers. But since they’ve been used to poke holes in LaVine’s game in the past, it’s only fair to reference them here, too, right?
According to Odds Shark, LaVine has the same odds (+8000) as Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis and New York’s Julius Randle of capturing the MVP award this season.
Still, if LaVine spearheads the attack that makes a mess of opposing defenses and sends the Bulls stampeding toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings, shouldn’t all bets be off?
Rose did it.
Why can’t LaVine?