Sam Smith: Zach LaVine's daring dunks should retire...for now

Zach LaVine is a thrilling dunker, but hopefully he focuses on body preservation in his eventual return.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later


The comment you most often hear when players are discussing injuries is they'll listen to their body.

I wonder if Zach LaVine's body said, "Enough with the dunking, already."

LaVine has missed the last two games after leaving the Golden State game last Friday with a knee issue after a few minutes. LaVine felt uncomfortable after an offensive rebound, and the sighs of relief were for an MRI the Bulls said showed no structural damage.

The Bulls haven't said yet when LaVine will return.

I hope when he does we've basically seen the end of his vibrant and flamboyant slam dunking.

I've never made it my business to tell players how to play. Even if a few have offered me writing suggestions at times, sometimes about where I could shove that story. And I'm not supposed to be worried about the players, though LaVine makes that difficult being so gracious, welcoming and especially talented.

He's endured almost five years with the Bulls with unusual and appealing aplomb despite too many coaching, management and player changes, and way too many losses. So many that despite finally beginning to receive the acclaim due his marvelous talents with an All-Star selection and an Olympic gold medal, LaVine is at the top of the active list for most games played without being in a playoff game.

Zach LaVine going through pregame introductions

Zach LaVine going through pregame introductions

That should end this season with the Bulls halfway through the season holding a percentage points first place lead over Miami in the Eastern Conference going into Wednesday's home game with Cleveland. Alex Caruso should return from injury and virus absence, though Lonzo Ball remains out, likely with LaVine.

LaVine has been unusually candid in recent seasons about never playing in a meaningful game. At least during an NBA regular season after the Olympics. He's always said his main priority is winning even as doubters pointed to his gaudy statistics and losses.

But if there's any more proof that's needed he prioritizes winning, he's shown that this season the way he's not only welcomed DeMar DeRozan, but so often has stepped aside to allow DeRozan to be the star of the team at the end of games.

And LaVine still is among the leading scorers in the NBA at 24.9 points per game.

This Bulls team, assuming it returns to full health, has shown it can make a serious run in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls need Zach for that; Zach perhaps needs that even more than the Bulls.

Which is not to say dunking will cause issues, though I, like most Bulls fans, still wince over the fate of Derrick Rose. Rose wasn't injured dunking, and his ACL tear and subsequent MCL injures may have occurred anyway. But you always got the sense the strain and torque Rose put on his body and joints with his high flying, spectacular game was worrisome. His injury in the first game of the 2012 playoffs was probably the worst I ever felt at an NBA game. And that included even after spoiled pinto beans in the Houston press room.

It's about two weeks from the fifth anniversary of LaVine's ACL tear when he was still with Minnesota and coming off winning two All-Star weekend slam dunk contests. He was one of the most exciting young players in the game.

His return from that surgery has been nothing short of miraculous and really unprecedented, a further validation of the work he puts in and commitment to his craft.

Zach LaVine's great stretch from October-to-December

Many players have returned to star status after ACL surgery. No one in the history of the NBA has returned after ACL surgery to sky and dunk again like LaVine does. Every time you see one of those breakaway double pumps or 360s or power slams you'd have to see the x-rays to be convinced he once had the most serious knee surgery.

That LaVine plays with such confidence, daring and elan is further testament to his drive and toughness.

But does he really have to continue to do that?

Was his knee telling him something last week?

I've never been a fan of dunking, and not only because I never could do it.

I know it's popular and what gets you on the nightly TV highlight show. Often they'll show a wild dunk and then mumble something about the team losing by 30. And the dunks also are what often get your teammates breaking into pantomimes of heart attacks watching the amazing feats.

Zach LaVine skies for a dunk against the New York Knicks

Zach LaVine skies for a dunk against Nerlens Noel (right) and the Knicks

But many of the best players in the NBA rarely dunk.

Stephen Curry doesn't, and we think he can. We're sure Kevin Durant can, but he rarely does. Same with James Harden, Trae Young and, oh yeah, MVP candidate DeRozan. Sometimes a dunk is necessary, like on a breakaway being chased. Jamming that ball through the basket avoids the block and missed layup.

But mostly it's for show, and worth the same two points.

I get when you are young and trying to get noticed and maybe make a name for yourself. At one time, it was considered a momentum changer for your team. Not so much anymore with all the 3-pointers flying around.

I know Rose can dunk, but he chooses not to anymore and has remained a highly productive player. And he can't shoot like LaVine.

It would be great to see the Bulls return to the playoffs this season for the first time in five years. If you don't tell anyone, I'm rooting for it for Zach more. They've got their memories. He doesn't have any yet.

LaVine will be 27 in March and is in his eighth NBA season. He has extraordinary basketball skills with his shooting, passing, ball handling and the ability to get to the basket past defenders. The dunk is the cherry on top of his skills sundae. But aren't those maraschino cherries dyed and said to be potentially harmful?

I'm sure LaVine will do what he feels most comfortable with when he returns from his absence. He's become one of the best players in the NBA doing it his way without consulting me. I just hope his body isn't trying to call him and getting a busy signal.

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The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.


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