Player breakdowns: Heck, yeah, Bulls guard Zach LaVine deserves better

With the NBA season still up in the air, the Sun-Times will look at all the Bulls, the seasons they had and the upcoming seasons they could have, in Chicago or elsewhere. First up is the face of the franchise.

SHARE Player breakdowns: Heck, yeah, Bulls guard Zach LaVine deserves better
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Zach LaVine remains in basketball hell.

That’s often where the best player on a bad team resides — good enough to put up numbers that at least make him an All-Star snub, but not given full credit for what he does on a nightly basis because it’s perceived as empty calories in the win-loss column.

Imagine what LaVine would be as a third option on the Lakers or Bucks. Or picture him with the Mavericks, working alongside Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis.

He would be the perfect stagger-minutes player in all those scenarios, still able to put up 20-22 points a game while learning the meaning of winning basketball.

That’s a lesson he hasn’t been able to grasp since he came into the league six years ago.

“I’ve done a lot of losing my whole career,’’ LaVine said last month. “I’ve been frustrated from the get-go, so I want that to change.’’

Bad news, Zach.

It likely won’t, at least not in a Bulls uniform.

Even though LaVine set career highs in almost all the major categories before the coronavirus put the season on hold, his team was still operating at a .338 clip and had the ninth-worst average point differential in the league (minus-3.1).

Obviously, it’s not a one-man blame game, and LaVine expected more help this season, but being the face of an organization is a blessing and a curse.

The key piece in the trade for Jimmy Butler in 2017, LaVine keeps finding that out.

“I’ve been able to deal with ups and downs really well this year, like a roller coaster,’’ LaVine said recently. “I feel I’ve been able to be pretty even-keeled and just lock in and be prepared for each game.’’

That goes for off-the-court stuff, as well. Besides putting up the numbers, LaVine emerged as the go-to voice of the locker room, making himself as accessible as an NBA player can be, and he’s not afraid to discuss any topic on the table.

It’s almost a shame that being a Bull is his current fate. Does he deserve better? Definitely, and it might come in a few years.

The situation

LaVine is signed through the 2021-22 season and will hit his free-agent season at 27, seemingly at his prime.

Until then, however, he has no choice but to keep improving to show the rest of the league that he hasn’t bumped his head on his talent ceiling.

He has emerged as a long-distance threat, and his playmaking has gotten better, but at best, he’s still a combo guard because of his turnover issues. LaVine’s athleticism is elite, but he tends to feel that he can squeeze passes into shrinking windows.

LaVine has continued to make small strides on the defensive end, especially on the ball, but focusing when the ball hops around still leads to problems in sticking to his man.

The resolution

Some players are satisfied with putting up stats and collecting a huge paycheck, relegating winning to third on the priority list. See Kevin Love’s tenure with the Timberwolves. But that’s not LaVine.

He wants to taste the NBA postseason for the first time and would love that big stage. Losing is wearing on him, and there will be a breaking point.

Bold prediction

Unable to find common ground on an extension, the Bulls will trade LaVine at the deadline in February 2022, insisting, “It’s Coby White’s team now.’’ LaVine will then sign a three-year deal with the Clippers that offseason and start making cameos on Season 5 of ‘‘S.W.A.T.,’’ appearing as Hondo’s estranged half-brother.

He’ll finally reach the playoffs.

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