LaVine wants to take it to the next level in offense and defense

This season, Zach LaVine wants to be more consistent offensively and defensively every night.

The recurring theme of Chicago basketball has been how are the Bulls ever going to get a star.

The free-agents-never-come contention is a sophism considering the likes of Ben Wallace, Pau Gasol, Carlos Boozer and even Dwyane Wade, elite free agents at the time even if none were named LeBron James. The draft-won't-work pessimism did come up roses in 2008. Though the theme remains, How are the Bulls ever going to get someone like James Harden, Russell Westbrook or Stephen Curry?

Other than, of course, checking in the locker room where that No. 8 is hanging.

"I expect myself to play this way," Zach LaVine was saying in practice the other day about his fast start in the Bulls preseason, averaging 23.3 points per game, 70 seemingly effortless points in 71 minutes while shooting 58 percent on threes. "I played pretty damn good last year. I'm going to take it a step in the next direction this year."

Zach LaVine scores 26 points against the Raptors

Which could be one giant leap in the NBA universe for the Bulls basketball odyssey.

LaVine averaged 23.7 points per game last season, 16th in the NBA with three games of at least 40 points. He tied a Michael Jordan record starting a season with four games scoring at least 30 points, had three games winners in a season of not so many wins and led the Bulls in scoring in 43 of his 63 games he played. Though such accomplishments are obscured when the community priority appears to be about the collegiate draft class.

"I don't think I'm going to lead the team in scoring every night," said LaVine. "But for the majority of it. I did last year and I think I will this year again, too. I take that upon myself. Every time I step on the court, I think I'm the best player. Not being selfish at all. But that's just the mentality I have. It starts with me, and I want to be able to try to make sure I bring everybody up. I think I can go out there and score on anybody. I think I can score at a high rate efficiently. So I'm going to make sure I go out there and do my job. I don't spend the hours in the gym to be a good player in the league. I do that so I can be a star. That's what I see myself as."

Snicker, sneer or smirk if you'd like. Call it arrogance, conceit or egotism. Though, for LaVine, it's confidence and self assurance, the attitude you want from your best players. Do you think Jordan, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird ever believed they weren't the best players in the gym? No matter what anyone else said, and they had their doubters.

LaVine has flown—and two All-Star slam dunk titles has shown he can take flight—under the NBA celebrity radar because his teams basically always have been playing to rebuild. And when he was about to break through, he suffered the serious ACL knee injury. So his ascent was delayed, and LaVine had to begin again with the Bulls. Hitting the 40-point game scoring mark his third season in Minnesota while averaging about 19 points and almost 40 percent three point shooting, LaVine actually was on a similar trajectory to Harden, Westbrook and Curry.

Harden didn't average more than 17 points until his fourth season when he was traded to Houston. Westbrook went over 17 in his third season and Curry with his own injury issues didn't average 20 points until his fourth season and didn't become an All-Star until his fifth season. None were top two draft selections. They grew as stars once they could flourish with their teams and were surrounded by excellent role playing talent.

The Bulls have those kinds of players now with the additions of Tomas Satoransky, Otto Porter Jr., Thaddeus Young and Coby White. Could that make it Zach's time in what really is just his second full season of his restart?

"We're just a lot more together," LaVine said about the Bulls this season. "I think we have our goals set this year. It's something that we haven't had; I don't think we've had the opportunity the last couple of years (because of) injuries.

"I feel like I've been doing a lot better defensively," LaVine continued. "My on-ball defense has been really good. So as long as I continue to pick up that side of the ball I shouldn't have that many flaws in my game. And it helps the team. Last year we weren't very good at all (defensively). So we're trending in the right direction. Just focusing and taking pride in stopping your man and doing your job. I've always been a good on-ball defender. But there's no reason I can be this good offensively and not be that good on the defensive end. So I'm taking more pride in it. I'm pretty sure it'll show. I'll make sure of that.

"I'm just tired," added LaVine with a laugh, "of people talking (bleep) about my defense."

Ah, there's the rub. The elephant in the room, the taboo. Or perhaps more appropriately, the Great Canard.

Which is perhaps why LaVine once again—here it comes, spoiler alert, pun intended—answered defensively.

Zach LaVine throws down the alley-oop against the Raptors

There's been an NBA community ambivalence about Zach LaVine basically his entire career at now the veteran age of 24. Sure, the nimble 6-5 200 pounder can jump and dunk and all that. And, yes, he's a good shooter and can score and finish at the basket with power and flair. Oh, right, but he can't play defense. Yeah, that's the ticket. That's why we don't really celebrate him or see him as special, right. That's why he's not an All-Star, not even ranked in the top 50 in most of the meaningless rankings, true?

Which is the Big Lie of the game.

LaVine's defense isn't exceptional. He'll never rank with Marcus Smart, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Patrick Beverley and a handful of others. Though not many.

"What he's talked about and what we've talked about is him becoming the best two-way player he can become, two-way player meaning he is engaged and committed to both ends of the floor," said Bulls coach Jim Boylen. "That he helps our team and it just shows another level he can go to."

The truth is there aren't many true two-way stars in the NBA. Sure, Leonard, Klay Thompson and maybe Paul George, though less so for the latter these days. LeBron used to be, but he cruises on defense these days to save himself for doing about everything else. Jimmy Butler also has relaxed his defense some since becoming more offense oriented, though those two can raise their level at the end of games.

Zach's never going to be in that team picture. But he's come into focus as an adequate defender who tries.

Here are some players who are much poorer defenders than Zach LaVine:

  • Stephen Curry: His side to side movements have also kept him off Dancing with the Stars.
  • James Harden: Sculptors have been using his presence during games for their models.
  • Russell Westbrook: His in-game rage and fury often leads to forgetting which jersey is the opposition.

Here are some more players who have not defended as well as Zach LaVine:

  • Steve Nash: Generally trailing his man equivalent to declining currency exchange rate from his native Canada.
  • Dirk Nowitzki: Known for much of his career as Irk Nowitzki as scorekeepers couldn't detect the D.
  • Charles Barkley: Defense? Not me.

And then perhaps some honorable mentions like, oh Larry Bird, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose and Magic Johnson.

Seeing a pattern here? Anyone?

Right, they're all NBA Most Valuable Player award winners, regarded by media in those seasons the best in the game. And most were generally regarded as the poorest defenders in the league, some the weakest in the game's history.

Which is why this relentless angst about LaVine's defense is a specious analysis.

Toni Kukoc went through something like this with the Bulls in the second three-peat years. Americans, by the way, especially loved to view the international players as lacking that appropriate toughness. Despite many of them growing up in the midst of wars. But, hey, don't bother us with that. So anytime there was an easy basket, everyone looked toward Kukoc on a team that included Steve Kerr, Dickey Simpkins and various antiquities like Robert Parish, Joe Kleine, James Edwards and John Salley.

It became something like the flat Earth theory, at least before Kyrie Irving discovered it. Everyone once believed the Earth was flat. And if everyone believed it, well, then it must be true. Right? Similarly with Kukoc, and now with Zach. It's a fan and media shortcut, the lazy way of doing analysis since defense cannot be categorized as easily as offense, especially the way teams play these days.

It's also like with your kids and that well behaved youngster next door. When you live with someone all the time, you tend to exaggerate their flaws compared with those you only see occasionally, and often at their best.

NBA defense these days isn't what it once was. There even used to be rules that you had to stay with your man. Not anymore, especially with the zone rules that evolved starting in the late 1990s. And even more so now, and even more so with the Bulls, who like to employ a lot of switching on defense. It's one of the reasons the team has prioritized taller wing players like Otto Porter Jr., Thaddeus Young, Tomas Satoransky and Chandler Hutchison. The theory is what the Golden State Warriors popularized to enable players to eliminate the advantage of the pick and roll, which is the NBA's primary offense. By switching in a pick and roll, the goal is to thwart the blocking action that frees up a shooter or the screener to roll to the basket for a layup. It's been difficult to determine what the Bulls will do this season because so many teams have rested regulars. But Boylen as something of a co-coach before replacing Fred Hoiberg last December was committed to switching on defense.

Giannis Antetekounmpo, last season's MVP, is a competent defender. But the previous four with Curry twice, Harden and Westbrook perennially rank as the worst defenders in the NBA. Harden, who has been top three in the MVP voting the last three years, has even been featured in memes to inspire bullfighters given his penchant for standing around and waving at players running past him. LaVine may not be the most aware on defense, but he's always tried and appears to care. And remember Jabari Parker's infamous doctrine.

No offense, meanwhile, but it hasn't exactly been a defensive wall of a Bulls team. So how is LaVine the weak link? Boylen seems to recognize some element of that the way the team this fall has emphasized an offensive style with speed and long distance shooting. Not that they've abandoned defense since Boylen talks about it regularly and has added a highly regarded defensive assistant to the staff.

But the strength of this Bulls team appears to be its offense, particularly with the addition of rookie White.

Zach LaVine is the indispensable man.

Most valuable to the Bulls, if not quite to the league yet. But he plays like one of those guys. And that's also how you acquire greatness. Sometimes it grows right in front of you.

"It has to start with me," LaVine says. "If I go out there and do my job, if I'm doing it offensively and defensively, I think it holds everybody accountable because I'm holding myself accountable, too.

"The collective group of guys that we've brought in has helped differently," said LaVine. "Tomas has helped push the pace and bring some different IQ to the game. Thad's a leadership guy in the locker room and even on the bench talking to people. Luke (Kornet) spaces the floor. Coby's obviously really good. He's going to be a big part of the future. Last year, I had some times where I would have those big scoring nights. But it would come after a game where I shot inefficiently or I would have a lower scoring game. I just want it to be consistent where you know what you're getting from me every night. So you're going to get it defensively and offensively. I'm letting it be heard."