The Case For Zach LaVine As A Building Piece For The Bulls

Bulls fans may have preferred obtaining Wiggins over LaVine in the Butler trade, but is Wiggins really better than LaVine?

Now that I have had some time to come to grips with the Jimmy Butler trade, I think it is important for Bulls fans to find the hope that does exist in the future of the team’s reconstructed roster.

Most people would likely view Zach LaVine as the centerpiece obtained through the Jimmy Butler trade that also brought in Kris Dunn and #7 pick Lauri Markkanen. Of these three newcomers on the Bulls, LaVine has certainly shown the most promise, having averaged 18.9 ppg last season, compared to the lackluster rookie season of Dunn and unproven draft pick Markkanen.

Of course, the biggest concern regarding 2x NBA Dunk Champion Zach LaVine is regarding his ability to regain his athleticism once he returns from his current ACL injury. Despite the severity of an ACL injury to an NBA player’s career, especially one such as LaVine who’s game is very dependent on his athletic ability, I maintain high hopes LaVine will be able to play next season fully healthy. Much of this hope has to do with a Bleacher Report article stating Lavine’s recovery is ahead of schedule. Also, I have seen people such as K.C. Johnson mention LaVine’s excellent work ethic that makes me believe LaVine will not only come back at or near his previous level of athleticism, but he will still have the potential to improve his game further.

If the Bulls had been able to get Wiggins in the Butler trade, Bulls fans might very well be looking at the Butler trade more favorably. Since Wiggins came into the league he has been touted as a future star-caliber player and this is fair given Wiggins was the #1 pick in the 2014 draft. LaVine came from the same draft, coming in at #13. Throughout their first three seasons on the Timberwolves, Wiggins has been undeniably considered the better player and the one with more potential. There has never really been much of a discussion on the comparative talent levels of Wiggins and LaVine. I think it is important for Bulls fans to put the trade into perspective and understand at their current talent levels, LaVine and Wiggins are all that different.

A Wiggins-LaVine comparison:

Both are super athletic guys who can score but haven’t yet become good defenders and neither are particularly good at passing or rebounding.

These are their per 36 stats from 2016–17 (from Basketball-Reference).

LaVine: 18.3 ppg, 0.8 spg, 2.9 apg, 3.3 rpg, 45.9% fg, 38.7% 3p

Wiggins: 22.8 ppg, 1.0 spg, 2.2 apg, 3.9 rpg, 45.2% fg, 35.6% 3p

The biggest difference in their per 36 stats is Wiggins’ higher ppg. Other than that, LaVine was able to pretty well match the stats of the former #1 pick. One would expect Wiggins to at least be a better rebounder than LaVine given the difference in height and position with being a Wiggins 6–8 small forward and LaVine a 6–5 guard, yet their rebounding and passing is about the same. And these stats do not show it, LaVine is a better passer than Wiggins despite their similar assists per game. Not only that, LaVine is currently the better 3-point shooter, which is much more valued in today’s NBA over the slasher forward that is not able to help space the floor.

Additionally, LaVine’s VORP in 2016–17 was 0.8 while Wiggins had a negative VORP at -0.6. Despite Wiggins’ ability to score, he does not seem to add as much to the team as some might assume.

The difference in their talent levels was more pronounced in their first two seasons as Wiggins won ROY and then jumped to a 20 ppg average in his second season. After this last season however, their talent level is actually pretty close. LaVine started all 47 games in played in during 2016–2017 and emerged as the clear #3 option for the T’Wolves.

But it’s also important to note that Wiggins has always been a #1 or #2 option up for the Timberwolves up to this point. He has had more opportunity than LaVine, who just became #3 option on the team this past season after being more of a 6th man his first two seasons. If LaVine was given more opportunity to score, he could be a 20 ppg player.

Granted, Wiggins may have a greater ceiling than LaVine, but then again, maybe not. If LaVine is really as hard a worker as it appears, he may surpass Wiggins one day by work ethic alone.

Wiggins is also going to become a third option on the Timberwolves this year behind Jimmy Buckets and KAT. LaVine may get to be option #1 on the Bulls. Neither Dunn nor Markkanen will be the first option and a 36-year-old Dwayne Wade should not be allowed to become the go-to scorer either. If LaVine is healthy, the Bulls need to let him be the offensive centerpiece so that they can develop him and the other young guys on the team. Wade can still score, but this is clearly a rebuilding stage for the Bulls and LaVine is supposed to be a major part of that rebuild and he will therefore need the opportunity to grow as a player.

What can be expected of this new look Bulls team?

Some might say LaVine’s ceiling is as a 6th man for a good team. I don’t get the impression LaVine wants to settle for being the best guy off the bench. He may have to revert to being 6th man this first year for the Bulls unless Wade gets moved or bought out, but LaVine is going to get a ton of opportunity to be a featured scorer regardless.

Dunn might never become a good starting point guard we hope he will be and Markkanen might end up being Mirotic 2.0, but I think LaVine could become a future All-Star given what he showed this past season in Minnesota. He is certainly going to get the opportunity to develop and being that he is still just 22, I don’t think it is fair to claim LaVine won’t be able to progress any further, even considering his injury.

It may take time for Bulls fans to accept this rebuilding stage, but I have slowly reached the point of mild excitement at the thought of getting to watch LaVine, Dunn, and Markkanen, and the rest of this young roster in the coming season. These three should get plenty of opportunity to play this season based on the rest of the current roster.

With Jimmy now gone, prospect development needs to be a main goal for the Bulls. Let the young guys play and make mistakes. The team won’t win anything this year and would have likely lost in the first round again with Butler still on the team. The goal is now development and obtaining a high draft pick.

And maybe Wade can be a mentor for LaVine like Butler is expected to be for Wiggins.

But even if you can’t be excited for Dunn or Markkanen, I really think LaVine has the potential to be good. This team is for sure a hot mess right now, but there are things to be excited about. LaVine is better than he is given credit for. He and Wiggins are pretty close talent-wise. In a few years we may look back and be glad the Bulls traded for LaVine over Wiggins.