There’s one narrative that Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine is actively fighting.
“People can talk about my defense all they want to,” said LaVine after the 139-131 double-overtime win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, per Sam Smith of NBA.com. “I’ve always been one of the best on-ball defenders. One-on-one situations, there’s not a lot of people that are going to get by me.”
In addition to his 39 points, it was LaVine that sent officially sent the game into overtime harassing Timberwolves forward Kyle Anderson into a turnover.
LaVine is on track to post the highest-ranking defensive rating of his career at 112.8, per Cleaning The Glass. That is only the fourth-best mark of his career but sits in the 71st percentile this season.
Further to the two-time All-Star’s point, there is a long-standing narrative that he is one of, if not the worst defenders in the NBA that predates his time in Chicago.
“[Former Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau] teaching Zach LaVine defense stands as one of the greatest educational challenges in modern world history,” wrote ESPN NBA insider Zach Lowe in 2016.
The narrative quickly resurfaced after Thibodeau traded him to the Bulls.
“Zach LaVine came to the Bulls with a reputation as a phenomenal scorer and subpar defender,” wrote Stephen Noh for The Athletic in 2018 citing LaVine’s lack of off-ball awareness. “Through three games, he’s lived up to both of those billings. His offensive talent is undeniable, but his defense remains a problem area.”
It was only three games in for LaVine because he missed the first 42 games of that season after surgery to repair a torn ACL and would see the floor in just 24 contests all season.
Even then, though, LaVine was confident in his ability to guard his man.
“I feel like I’ve been doing OK. Still parts and areas I need to get better at, off the ball,” LaVine said after that third game, a loss to the Golden State Warriors on January 17, 2018, per Noh. “On the ball, I’ve always felt good and comfortable. Conditioning has a big part in that too as well, so I’ve got to get that back to where I need it to be offensively and defensively. Keep making strides and keep going with the game plan.”
He has made similar comments this season about his offense coming around after having arthroscopic knee surgery in the offseason.
LaVine’s defensive rating was 117 over his first 32 appearances of this season. It has come down to 116 since the calendar turned to 2023. But since their last encounter with the Timberwolves – a 150-126 loss on December 18 – it is 116, two points worse than it was before that contest.
Zach LaVine Gets It on Defense
Lowe has since defended LaVine’s understanding of defensive concepts following this conversation in 2018:
“It’s always been my downfall,” LaVine said during an appearance on ‘The Lowe Post’ podcast that year, his first season with the Bulls. “And, once you get someone saying something about you, it’s hard to get rid of that narrative. So I just have to almost shut it up. As good as I think I am offensively, there’s no reason I can’t be that good defensively. I feel like I have all the tools, I just have to put my mind to it.
“I’ve always been a really good on-ball defender. I haven’t been the best off-ball and team defender, and that’s what the NBA is is team defense. So it’s more just locking in and realizing this is what you have to do because anybody can play defense if you have the heart for it, it’s a mentality.”
LaVine also noted that he had not always given maximum effort following a bad offensive possession, something former Bulls head coach Jim Boylan would often get on him about even amid his defensive uptick the guard said.
That interview could be even more informative for the Bulls after this season they are expected to undergo some significant changes on the court.
Building Around Zach LaVine
There still is not a lot of love for LaVine’s defense among some other advanced metrics
His approach and talent could warrant outfitting the rest of the roster with defense-first pieces that better complement what he does.
That does not necessarily mean that both DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic need to go even if, with both in their 30s, it might not seem like the worst idea. It does not even mean that one of them likely has to go if for no other reason than to bring back the necessary pieces to maximize LaVine.
Of the seven Bulls lineups that feature LaVine for at least 100 possessions, only five of them have positive net ratings and all of them feature the Bulls’ big three. Four of those lineups have a defensive point guard while three of them have two defensive players alongside the trio.