Bulls' Zach LaVine knows nixing turnover trouble is last step to major leap

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Rob Schaefer
·4 min read
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LaVine knows nixing turnover trouble last step to major leap originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

It's been the most glaring smudge on a season that has seen Zach LaVine take marked leaps as a scorer and facilitator: Turnovers.

In fact, that's been the foremost problem area for the Bulls' offense in general, despite significant strides forward as a unit. Underpinning a jump from 29th to 17th in the NBA in offensive rating are team ranks of 30th in turnovers per game (18.1), 29th in turnover rate (17.1 percent) and 29th in points allowed off turnovers per game (21.6).

LaVine's 4.3 turnovers per game represents the highest mark of his career and the second-highest average in the NBA this season, just trailing James Harden's 4.5.

"It's too much," said head coach Billy Donovan after Wednesday's practice. "And I also understand when you’ve got an elite offensive player who’s got the ball in his hands, he’s always going to be a little more susceptible to turnovers. I think there’s good turnovers when the ball is in your hands that much, and there’s bad turnovers. I think Zach would be probably the first one to admit that some of them are just unacceptable."

As Donovan notes, some of this comes with the territory. LaVine is averaging 71.2 touches per contest and 4.68 seconds per touch through 17 games, both career highs. In turn, he's assisting on a higher rate of possessions -- 24.5 percent -- than at any other point in his career and scoring with outrageous efficiency. A gander at the rest of the (finger quotes) top 10 in turnovers per game reveals a handful of star offensive centerpieces.

Still, that 4.3 looms large. And LaVine concurred that, as he tries to find the balance between being aggressive and reckless as a playmaker, responsibility for his cough-ups falls squarely on him.

"Some of it is just careless passing," LaVine said. "And then other things is me trying to fit the ball into tight areas and predetermining offensive reads. I feel like I've done a really good job of determining and seeing people on cuts and try to manipulate the defense with the pass, but with that comes a lot of things that I haven't done well, trying to force the ball in and making some careless passes.

"So (I'm) looking at film and seeing how to clean those up, and I'll do that. But I'm obviously going to continue to try to be aggressive and continue to make the right play as well."

That last point is key, because, in sum, LaVine's progression reading the floor has been more good than bad. While he's been party to his fair share of inaccurate passes and head-scratching errors, LaVine has also exhibited poise facilitating out of double-teams that his scoring prowess commands and has balanced well finding offense for himself while also intentionally getting teammates involved. The Bulls' best offense has flowed through him.

Recently, of course, tough defensive matchups against the Lakers and Celtics have skewed the results toward the ugly side. LaVine has 13 turnovers in his last two games, and his six against Boston marked the fifth game this season he's finished a game with six or more turnovers.

"We’ve got to value possessions. We were not great, I didn’t think, offensively against the Lakers. We were actually a lot better, I thought, against Boston offensively," Donovan said. "But we turned it over too much."

The Bulls posted a negative assist (18) to turnover (19) ratio against the Lakers, just the second time they've done so all season (the first was, not so coincidentally, against another long, physical defense in the Bucks). And against the Celtics, they ceded 35 points off 19 turnovers, the third time this season a Bulls opponent has eclipsed 30 points off turnovers.

"When you’re going against elite teams, you can’t turn the ball over at the rate we do," Donovan said. "We’ve turned it over entirely too much. We’re trying to clean it up and we’re talking about it."

When those miscues lead immediately to scoring chances for opponents -- Bulls opponents are creating transition possessions off of 71.5 percent of their steals (30th in NBA), per Cleaning the Glass -- it bleeds into the defense, which is currently 26th in defensive rating and just lost a key cog in Wendell Carter Jr. The Bulls' turnover troubles also place a firm ceiling on an offense that has flashed major upside playing in Donovan's fresh, movement-based system.

"We’re trying to work on it and put them in those situations to be maybe more fundamentally sound and to make better decisions," Donovan said. "The ones we’ve got to eliminate are the careless live-ball turnovers. They know it. We all know it. For us to be a team that’s going to reach its potential from the offensive side, that’s got to be something we make drastic improvements upon.”

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