The highest-scoring night of Zach LaVine’s career was an exercise in futility.
LaVine was at his peak Saturday night in Detroit. He defiantly walked to the rim and hurled shots from the back of the net without hesitation. This version of LaVine is undeniable and irresistible — “unstoppable,” as DeMar DeRozan described it. But none of that mattered.
Despite LaVine’s 51 points, the Bulls still lost by double digits, showing the same truth that has defined the team the last two seasons – the Stars can’t do everything for this team.
The current Bulls squad is built around three stars: LaVine, DeRozan and Nikola Vučević. For two years now, the Bulls have had poor offensive results trying to play through this trio – even though all three former All-Stars posted some of the most efficient years of their careers.
In year three, coach Billy Donovan wants to try something different. The Bulls came into this season with the mentality of distributing the ball. The concept makes sense on paper – if the Bulls can’t keep up offensively, even with LaVine, Vučević and DeRozan scoring consistently, then they need to increase their scoring by feeding the rest of the roster.
But after the third game of the season, LaVine was unconvinced of the effectiveness of the new system on the field.
“We’re trying this new thing to create a complete, cohesive, equal opportunity offense,” LaVine said. “It will take some time to figure it out. We got a lot of stuff in transition the first few games and me and DeMar were in the corner a lot. We’re trying to figure out how we can get involved.”
“Hero ball” was never the answer in Chicago — that’s why the Bulls brought in Vučević and DeRozan two years ago and then spent this preseason Harping on 3-pointers and ball rotation. But LaVine is also objectively right. The offense isn’t working. The Bulls were stagnant on offense in the first three games, barely cracking an offensive rating of 100 (101.8, 24th in the league).
The Bulls will have to settle somewhere in the middle. They can’t get by on LaVine’s efforts alone. They also clearly can’t keep up if he doesn’t score, as the first two games of the season show.
“That’s something we have to figure out,” LaVine said. “Of course, each of us has been the most important option on a team and then he has also been the most important scoring option on this team. It’s just something new that we need to figure out and figure out how to approach it. We haven’t managed 100% in the first half games yet. We’re trying to figure out what’s not working. But we’re sticking with it.”
LaVine suffered a stop-and-start of his own during the season, which could be a side effect of injury. Concern arose Friday night when LaVine left the locker room after the first half with a heating pad on his back. LaVine admitted to some back stiffness after the game while wearing a heating pad again and joked that he had taken “a ton” of Tylenol, but brushed off questions about the injury as a long-term problem.
LaVine was listed as probable for Saturday’s game in Detroit with mid- and lateral-back spasms, but played with discomfort on the night of his career. .
This is familiar territory for LaVine. Last year, he suffered from a prolonged recovery from an offseason knee injury that ultimately stretched beyond three months into the season. LaVine sat out the first two games of the season and then missed two of the following games. His shooting remained inconsistent throughout November, including a disastrous 1-for-14 night against the Orlando Magic.
In January, LaVine finally got into shape. He scored 77 points over the course of consecutive games against the Philadelphia 76ers on January 6th and Utah Jazz on January 7th. After hitting six 3-pointers against the Jazz, LaVine expressed relief at his return to full health: “It’s good to feel like myself again.”
Although it took LaVine three months to start the season, he ended up having one of the best runs of his career. He bounced back after the All-Star break, averaging 27 points and 4.7 assists while shooting 53.2% from the field and 39.4% from 3-point range.
This year it should be different. LaVine had a normal offseason, training most of the summer alone and with Bulls teammates in California. He competed in charity golf tournaments and hit a few shots at the MLB All-Star Celebrity Softball Game.
In the weeks leading up to the home opener, LaVine’s excitement was visible – he was ready to start a season and feel comfortable in his own body. But he’s also not willing to miss games again, even if it means playing in pain for 77 minutes in 24 hours.
“I’ve played through worse,” LaVine said. “It’s not bad enough that I shouldn’t play.”
LaVine knows this is his last chance to prove this system can work before the front office dismantles the central trio. That brings added pressure for a team trying to adjust its core offensive scheme — and the Bulls don’t have the luxury of a slow start.
If this group wants to stay together, LaVine knows the offense needs to start getting going in the first few weeks of the season.
“We’ve been here long enough,” LaVine said. “Vooch got traded, I got traded, DeMar got traded. We understand that this is a business. Of course we’re all frustrated about why things aren’t going the way they should be, but that’s just the situation we’re in. It’s our third year here together. We all know what this business is like. We all love each other. We have to figure out how to make this thing work.”