It’s time to talk about Zach Lavine.
More specifically, we must talk about the return of Zach Lavine, the impact his presence will have on rotations, minutes, player development, et al.
The Bulls have benefited from some bad luck this season. Injuries and suspensions have allowed Coach Hoiberg to get a look at players who might have been passed over or under utilized with a full, healthy roster. Lauri Markkanen is the most obvious beneficiary, jumping from third string power forward to starter in the same time it takes to throw a punch, but other players have also been given opportunities. David Nwaba flourished in the starting rotation before his own injury, and with his absence Kay Felder has been given more minutes. As each player returns or leaves from injury (or suspension), the team dynamic changes. New possibilities emerge with each shift in the roster/rotation, and the biggest shift for the Bulls is just peaking over the horizon: Zach Lavine.
Zach Lavine is a tremendous scorer; two time NBA Dunk Contest winner, shooting 44% from the field and over 38% from beyond the three point arc. When he plays, he will be the best scorer on the Bulls, the number one option for the offense. A healthy Bulls starting line up will probably feature Robin Lopez at center, Markkanen and Justin Holiday as the forwards, with Lavine and Jerian Grant (assuming Kris Dunn doesn’t take over at point) as the guards.
— Rok Deez (@rokdeezblog) November 12, 2017
The Bulls should see an up tick in their offensive production. If Lavine returns to form, he is more than capable of averaging 20+ points a game for this team. He will automatically become the Bulls #1 scoring option, and the #1 target for the defense. As teams focus on stopping Lavine, secondary options should have an easier time finding open shots.
Justin Holiday will immediately benefit from the return of Zach Lavine. After proving to be the Bulls best and most consistent offensive player in the preseason, opponents have focused their defense on Holiday, making it difficult for him to score. Likewise, after Lauri Markkanen had a couple of breakout games at the start of the season teams focused their defense on him. While Markkanen has continued to impress, he should find himself open more on the arc as defenses collapse on a diving Lavine. He will also free the Finnish rookie from the pressure of having to carry the team, by taking the scoring yolk from off of his shoulders.
Kris Dunn will also improve with his former Minnesota teammate on the court. The two played together for a season, and they should already have a strong understanding of each others game. The return of Zach Lavine might be the final push that Dunn needs to propel himself into the starting line up.
Cristiano Felicio should profit from a dynamic offensive player on the floor with him. Felicio has not played well this season. He is one of the biggest reminders of how good Jimmy Butler was for the Bulls. Jimmy made Felicio better, he made everybody on the team better, in a lot of different ways. Finding Felicio with quick dump off passes as he drove to the hoop, playing pick and roll with the big guy, he made Felicio look good. Lavine should be able to play a similar role on offense for the Brazilian big man. I expect Felicio to get back to his former energetic self with Lavine pushing the pace.
Even as Lavine’s presence helps some his teammates, others are sure to be negatively effected. Both Paul Zipser and David Nwaba will have to return to the bench. Zipser has been just as disappointing this season as Felicio, and was already replaced in the starting line up by the super athletic Nwaba before he sprained his ankle. If and when Lavine and Nwaba are both healthy enough to play, Zipser could see his playing time significantly diminished, and Nwaba will be pushed back out of the starting line up.
Denzel Valentine might also feel the negative effects of a Lavine return. Right now he is basically the sixth man on the roster, the first substitution off of the bench. He plays about 26 minutes a game, but Lavine and the recently returned from suspension Bobby Portis will take some of that playing time away. It is also very possible Kay Felder finds himself completely out of the rotation, and possibly off of the team, simply because there aren’t enough minutes to go around.
While Zach Lavine is most certainly a thrilling offensive player and nearly an elite level scorer, he is a lost puppy on defense. The pressure that he relieves from teammates on the offensive end of the court is placed squarely back on their shoulders on the defensive end. Bulls players will have to cover his many lapses on defense. Whether it’s Markkanen and Lopez cutting off Lavine’s assignment as they make back door cuts to the rim, or Holiday, Dunn, and Nwaba rotating on the perimeter as his man leaks out behind the arc, the Bulls will have to plan for the inevitable defensive breakdown.
The hardest and most likely change the return of Lavine will make will be to the roster. I think the Bulls will start trying to trade players after he gets a couple of games under his belt. The most likely players to be traded are the veterans, Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday, and Bobby Portis. Lopez has been solid in almost every game this season, doing a lot of dirty work under the basket and shooting the ball well from the mid range. I’m sure some team will want him for his consistency and steady demeanor, he doesn’t cause locker room problems.
The league loves a good 3-and-D player, which is a good way to describe Justin Holiday. He is a strong defender who can guard multiple positions and spread the floor on the offensive end. He is a “two-way” player and could get the most assets back in a trade.
Bobby Portis has played well since his return from suspension. I’m sure teams love the fact that he can stretch the floor on offense, and if he continues his current scoring pace, they may even overlook his problems on defense. But the punch he delivered to Niko Mirotic may impact any offer a team makes for him. Don’t expect much in return from a trade of Portis.
No player on the Bulls is safe from being traded. I hope the Bulls are considering any and all offers from other teams. I wouldn’t be surprised if David Nwaba or Denzel Valentine were traded, both have skills and talents that might appeal to teams looking to add depth to their roster. Nwaba is an athletic, on-the-ball defender, who has shown the ability to get to the rim on offense. Valentine has grown into a three point bomber, hitting over 38% of the threes he has taken this season. Some team will want his stretch shooting coming off of their bench.
For better or worse the Bulls are at a tipping point waiting for that first domino to fall. The return of Zach Lavine will nudge them in one direction or another.
The Worst Records in the NBA
1. Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks: 2-11 .154
3. Chicago Bulls: 2-9 .182
4. Sacramento Kings: 3-9 .250