Zach LaVine: Is He Any Good?

In the NBA, there are Dunk Contest Guys and there are actually-plays-in-real-games guys as far as effectiveness is concerned.

Rare is the man who can combine greatness in the dunk contest with the kind of career that, say, Michael Jordan had or Dominique Wilkins had or Vince Carter had.

Look at the past few years of the dunk contest for All-Star weekend. Hamidou Diallo and Glenn Robinson III and Aaron Gordon and Zach LaVine.

The only guy to do real damage in the dunk contest who isn’t a Dunk Contest Guy, at least not in how he’ll be remembered, was Donovan Mitchell in 2018.

LaVine’s won the contest twice. Once legitimately in 2015, the other time by absolute shameful robbery of Gordon in 2016.

But he’s on a garbage Bulls team that hasn’t managed to really break out of the East’s Garbage Fire Zone even with LaVine and Lauri Markkanen.

So what gives? Is LaVine legit? Or is he more of a cross between Devin Booker (another “great stats, atrocious team” guy who never looks like winning anything) and Harold Miner?

Come to think of it, LaVine’s teams were trash in Minnesota too.

So here’s the deal. If LaVine’s stats are good enough to justify his getting big minutes in a major team-concept role with a contender, he’s Confirmed. If he’s a great-stats-bad-team guy, he’s Plausible. And if he’s basically Devin Booker (or below), he’s Busted.

Got it? Good. Let’s play.

The Counting Stats

You look at LaVine’s 23.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game, see those are career highs both in raw terms and (except for rebounds, which are down from 5.2 to 4.8) per 36 minutes and think to yourself “finally, in Year 5, the guy’s putting it together.”

And that’s a fair point. I mean, he can do (and has done) better for efficiency—his .520 eFG% is down from the .544 he put up in his last full healthy season in Minnesota—and he’s taking way too many midrange jumpers in Chicago’s garbage fire offense, but do you really want to blame LaVine for that?

When a player’s shooting percentages from certain spots on the floor are so utterly putrid that they’re a mile out of character (I give you LaVine’s 26.4 percent from 3-10 feet and 30.1 from 10-16), you don’t even have to watch the games to know that most of those shots are either contested jumpers with the shot clock running down or some other flavor of busted play where he didn’t get the shot that he wanted and had to take the one the defense gave him.

I’m not going to ding him for it, not when he’s finishing 65.3 percent of his shots inside three feet and shooting 36.8 percent from long range. Every single thing about those shooting splits says that being coached by the likes of Tom Thibodeau, Fred Hoiberg, and Jim Boylen would do that to anyone.

Point is, he’s scoring lots of points. On a team that’s 19-50, but he’s scoring lots of points and finding some good shots in a disaster movie of an offense.

The Advanced Stats

A WS/48 below the Starter’s Mendoza Line is never going to endear you to the numbers people, and LaVine’s at .065 WS/48, That makes him a 27-win player on a team with a 23-win pace on their record.

He’s also a terrible defender, although he’s gone from “garbage fire” to merely “liability” like a student going from an F to a D on the report card.

His 18.8 PER is his first trip over league average in that stat in his career, and being a 1.1 VORP guy is better than, I dunno, being a worse alternative to a G-League player; coming into this season, LaVine had a career VORP of minus-0.2. That’s more Andrew Wiggins than Dominique Wilkins.

But he’s improving. The whole point of this exercise is to spot both short-term and longer-term trends that let us evaluate whether a player’s advanced stats match his counting stats, and LaVine’s back up his reputation. At least for now.

Oh, and he has a positive on-off Net Rating split (+1.8) for the first time in his career in either Chicago or Minnesota. The Bulls, as bad as they are with LaVine on the floor, are even worse without him.


But that just makes LaVine’s ceiling kind of like Kyle Kuzma‘s ceiling or Aaron Gordon’s ceiling, and it’s only in the fifth year of his career that he finally managed to pull clear of comparisons to Harrison Barnes and Andrew Freaking Wiggins.

You know who plays like that and wins dunk contests? Dunk Contest Guys.

But I think LaVine is a lot better than Devin Booker. Well, until next week…DUN DUN DUNNNNN SEQUEL HOOK

Ahem. LaVine’s a Great-Stats-Bad-Team guy. And per the original rubric, that makes the question of whether he’s any good merely Plausible.

NEXT WEEK: Devin Booker.