On Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus. The first: Has Zach LaVine hit his ceiling?
Whether the season has reached it's conclusion or not, the Bulls guard's sixth year has undoubtedly been the best of his career. In it, he established himself as a premiere, high-volume bucket-getter, averaging a career-high 25.5 points per game on 45/38/80.2 shooting splits (20 FGA/g, 8.1 3PA/g, 5.6 FTA/g). The peaks - a 49-point, 13 3-pointer outburst in Charlotte, a near 44-point triple double in Cleveland or just the entire month of January, to name a few - were tantalizing.
And that's great, especially for someone like LaVine who's young for a sixth-year (he turned 25 two weeks ago). But the Bulls' current rebuild is constructed for him to be the rock. A guy that can be the best player on a championship team. Putting off-court intangibles aside, that distinction generally imbues some combination of high-level scoring ability, defensive prowess and playmaking chops (ideally all three) and in the moments that matter most.
Believe this: No one wants Zach LaVine to be that player more than Zach LaVine. He's talked routinely about kicking the perception of him being ‘just a dunker.' Despite obvious room for improvement in both departments, LaVine showed progress as both a playmaker and team defender this season.
But so far, he definitively checks just one of the aforementioned ‘franchise rock' boxes (scoring). The question remains: How likely is it that LaVine will one day tick off the remaining ones?
Here's a look at some optimistic comparisons to other prevalent score-first guards in their sixth seasons:
Zach LaVine: Age 24; 25.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.2 apg; 45/38/80 splits (20 FGA/g, 8.1 3PA/g, 5.6 FTA/g); 52.1% eFG, 31.7% USG, 2.5 BPM
Kemba Walker: Age 26; 23.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.2 apg; 44.4/39.9/84.7 splits (18.3 FGA/g, 6.5 3PA/g, 4.5 FTA/g); 52.7% eFG, 29.2% USG, 4.1 BPM
Bradley Beal: Age 24; 22.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 4.5 apg; 46/37.5/79.1 splits (18.1 FGA/g, 6.5 3PA/g, 4.5 FTA/g); 52.7% eFG, 27.6% USG, 2.2 BPM
Damian Lillard: Age 27; 26.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.6 apg; 43.9/36.1/91.6 splits (19.4 FGA/g, 8.6 3PA/g, 7.4 FTA/g); 51.9% eFG, 30.6% USG, 7.2 BPM
Vince Carter: Age 27; 22.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.8 apg; 41.7/38.3/80.6 splits (20 FGA/g, 3.3 3PA/g, 5.7 FTA/g); 50.1% eFG, 32.5% USG, 3.6 BPM
James Harden: Age 25; 27.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 7.0 apg; 44/37.5/86.8 splits (18.1 FGA/g, 6.9 3PA/g, 10.2 FTA/g); 51.1% eFG, 31.3% USG, 8.8 BPM
On raw numbers alone, LaVine stacks up fairly well! But of course, there's more than meets the eye. Harden is an offensive system unto himself and had 72 playoff games, three All-Star selections, two All-NBA nods (one first team), a Sixth Man of the Year and a top-two MVP finish under his belt by his sixth season. We have enough evidence to suggest LaVine will never match his supreme distribution and creation ability.
As for the others: Carter had five All-Star game appearances and two All-NBA selections by the end of his sixth season. Lillard had three All-Stars and four All-NBAs (one first), and Walker and Beal each made their first All-Star appearance in year six.
So far, LaVine's only hardware of note is a first team All-Rookie selection, and he's never helmed a team that's exceeded 31 wins. Those two things are certainly connected. This season's underwhelming results hardly fall at his feet, but they count towards his record, regardless.
LaVine recognizes that and has proven a capacity for linear progression over the course of his career. Here's his first two and a half NBA seasons (before his ACL tear in Feb. 2017):
(via Basketball Reference)
And here's his two almost full seasons since (excluding 24 games played in 2017-18 when he was fresh back):
A lot of upward trends in there. Especially this year. LaVine was faced with persistent on-ball pressure and waves of bodies as the Bulls' only reliable source of offense. In those circumstances, he flashed willingness as a distributor and absurd tough-shot making ability. And don't forget, he'll be a young 25 when he enters his seventh year. His prime is still one to three years away.
But scroll back to those optimistic comparisons again. How many of their exploits have led to legitimate title contention? Harden, yes. But he is a transcendent talent and had elite players around him when he came closest to a title. But the rest cap out at conference finals knockouts (Lillard, Carter) and early-round exits (Beal, Walker).
LaVine clearly has another level he can reach if his defensive intensity continues to trend upward, and he tacks on an assist or two per game here, or a free throw attempt per game there. His track record is one that will commit to those improvements.
But the track record for those who profile similarly to LaVine (in this era of the NBA, at least) is that of needing the right infrastructure to succeed at the highest of high levels. That's why this Bulls season is especially frustrating. As LaVine's star rose, the closest thing to a No. 2 option that emerged was 10 games of Coby White.
So no, evidence doesn't suggest that LaVine has reached his ceiling yet. The problem is that if and when that day comes, the Bulls will probably still need more talent to reach greater heights. How the organization goes about building the right team (both on and off the court) remains to be seen.