The Bulls and Kings, two teams roughly as far from NBA relevance as possible, spent Friday in a brief tug-of-war over the right to pay huge sums of money for the services of Zach LaVine, a butt player with zero track record of contributing to anything even approaching functional professional basketball. In an act of what could only be mercy, the Bulls exercised their right of first refusal and grabbed LaVine back from Sacramento, on a four-year, $78 million contract.
In a world where Victor Oladipo’s similar deal went from hilarious overpay to possibly a bargain over the course of one All-NBA season, it’s worth holding out some hope that LaVine will someday be worth this deal. In the absence of any single shred of evidence pointing to that eventuality, it’s fair to say, for now, that pushing to add $20 million a year of Zach LaVine to a lottery team is an extremely good way of remaining a lottery team over the duration of that contract.
Before an ACL injury cut short his 2016-2017 season, LaVine was putting together another shriekingly awful defensive year for the Minnesota Timberwolves. According to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, LaVine ranked 441st out of 468 qualified NBA players in defensive impact, behind such defensive stalwarts as James Harden, Nik Stauskas, and Marco Belinelli, and in the range of Derrick Rose and the dreaded Devin Booker. LaVine played too few games last season to qualify—he was, after all, still recovering from that knee injury—but you should know that his dismal minus-2.35 DRPM in 2016-2017 was more than a full point better than what he’d produced the prior season, which was nearly a full point better than what he’d produced the season before. In no season of his career has he finished higher than the bottom 27 players in the NBA in this defensive metric.
Lest you suspect that DRPM has been cherry-picked, here, Basketball Reference says LaVine has never finished any season with a defensive box plus-minus better than minus-2.0. For point of reference, James Harden has never finished with a defensive box plus-minus lower than minus-0.6. The NBA’s stats service says LaVine has never finished a season with better than 0.021 defensive win shares; James Harden, by way of comparison, has never finished a season lower than .033 since joining the Houston Rockets. Zach LaVine is a horrible, worthless defensive player, and both DBPM and DWS say LaVine’s quarter-season in Chicago featured more of the same.
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It’s possible to be a poor defensive player and still be worth a damn if you are an especially efficient offensive player, but Zach LaVine also isn’t that: he’s a solid but streaky three-point shooter with a versatile jump-shot, and a tremendous athlete, but he’s never been especially efficient—the truncated 2016-2017 campaign in Minnesota represents the first time in his career when he’s maintained above-average true shooting over so much as a half-season—and his scoring numbers in the 24 games he played in a Bulls uniform were downright galling: 49.9 percent true shooting on too-eager 29.6 percent usage, including a dismal, terrifying 49.3 percent shooting inside the restricted arc. It’s expected that a player will struggle athletically in their first action after such a devastating lower leg injury, but those are still the circumstances in which the Kings offered to pay LaVine like a high-end starter.
This is all especially depressing because it happened soon after the Kings made noise about acquiring Kawhi Leonard, whose upper leg is now made of beef jerky, in a “desperate” search for an “established star” to integrate into their comically underwhelming, lopsided roster. Leonard, a Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, will make just about a million bucks more in salary this upcoming season than LaVine will on his new deal. Sacramento’s idea of pivoting from their pursuit of one of the NBA’s very best players was a hefty contract for a guy who, right now, probably shouldn’t be treated as more than a frisky reserve.
Thankfully, the Kings aren’t the only dysfunctional outfit in town. LaVine was part of the disappointing package the Bulls received in the infamous Jimmy Butler trade, and, as such, the pressure was on to keep him in the fold in order to redeem the transaction. But the Bulls are butt! It’s not unreasonable for a butt team with big shiny offseason eyes to spend some money on an established veteran, but it’s wild and reckless and dumb as heck to spend a hunk of next offseason’s ultra-valuable cap space on a player of LaVine’s caliber, coming off of the injury and season he had last year. LaVine’s contract will knock the Bulls down from over $60 million in projected cap space next summer—enough for two max-level free agents—to the still-huge $44 million, per Spotrac. But this rebuilding Bulls team will likely need the potential to lure multiple superstars in order to lure any; God help them if they think of LaVine as the first one.
The first leap, post-rebuild, is supposed to come organically, a you-know-it-when-you-see-it type of thing: a collection of assorted youngsters and journeymen cohere around the undeniable talents of one or two foundational players, and spend the second half of an otherwise lost season creeping up on the league. The play is loose and clumsy, but the mix of talent is right and anyway very good basketball players sometimes just run past and jump over mediocre competition, system be damned.
That’s supposed to be the moment when a general manager shifts from accruing talent to considering things like depth and fit and salary cap ramifications. The scariest condition for an NBA team is when it tries to skip that first stage of precocious competitiveness, and jumps ahead to the Rounding Out A Contender stage. But in the modern NBA, where tanking is such an alluring and rewarding way of finishing a lost season, it’s common for organizations to pursue draft lottery positioning and short-circuit the late season bloom, sabotaging what could be a spring surge. These organizations are left to guess or assume or find obscure signs to indicate whether the guys they had playing garbage ball in December would’ve had a chance to play spunky, defiant ball in March, had the competitive part of their season not been shut down early.
The Bulls spent the last month or so of last season starting the likes of Cameron Payne and Noah Vonleh and Denzel Valentine, and compiled a miserable minus-12.5 net rating over their last 15 games, the worst in the NBA. They tanked down the stretch so they could improve their lottery odds, and they wound up with the seventh pick, which they spent on Wendell Carter. They were in position to tank because they are talent poor and they stink, and they need high lottery picks for the same reason. LaVine might turn out to be a fine player, and the NBA will be a much cooler league if he someday does. But only a team like the Kings could be crazy enough to offer him a star’s contract in restricted free agency, and possibly only the Bulls could be addled enough to jump up and match it.