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Zach LaVine, Bulls

Can Zach LaVine get the Bulls to the playoffs?

Zach LaVine has been sensational this season, but can he make the 2019-20 NBA season more memorable for the Chicago Bulls by leading them to the playoffs?

A few weeks ago the Bulls were 13-26, rotting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference; they’ve been playing better since. Winning six of their last 11 games, the Bulls have been better offensively and are now just three games out of the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

LaVine is the heart and soul of head coach Jim Boylen’s offense.

Gradually improving from the eye test and production standpoint over his career, the 2015 and 2016 Slam Dunk Contest Champion has never been more lethal. He’s blowing past defenders, getting inside off the dribble with ease, skying above the rim, shooting with confidence, and drawing fouls.

Averaging 25.1 points per game, which is 12th in the NBA, LaVine is a force to be reckoned with offensively. He’s also shooting an impressive 38.0 percent from beyond the arc. Last season he averaged 23.7 points per game and shot 37.4 percent from beyond the arc.

LaVine is the closest thing Chicago has seen to vintage Derrick Rose. He’s single-handedly taking over games, putting the Bulls on his back, and doing so on a nightly basis.

Now, LaVine isn’t flawless. He forces a lot of shots and struggles a bit defensively. A lot of it derives from the desire to put the Bulls on his back, which is fine. However, at times, he’s a bit out of control with the ball in his hands. Chicago would love a version of LaVine that plays with the same intensity, but distributes a bit more.

Around Zach LaVine, the Bulls have a handful of compelling players.

Lauri Markkanen has continued to be a versatile offensive threat; Wendell Carter is coming into his own; rookie Coby White is exhibiting playmaking qualities; Tomas Satoransky has done a plausible job facilitating for his teammates; Kris Dunn has made an impact on both ends of the floor; Thaddeus Young has been a welcome veteran presence.

LaVine running around defenses can draw double teams, occasionally resulting in forced shots. His aggressiveness doesn’t always have to result in a forced shot; it can be finding a teammate for an easier shot.

Injuries have challenged Chicago this season. Otto Porter has appeared in just nine games due to a foot injury, and Markkanen is expected to miss upwards of a month due to a pelvis injury. Those are pivotal injuries. Porter is a proven three-and-d player, and Markkanen is one of the better scoring big men in the NBA.

If the Bulls are going to make a second-half push for the playoffs, they need their familiar faces to answer the call; that starts with LaVine.

The numbers and highlights speak for themselves: Zach LaVine is a stud. A star? That’s a bold jump, but he has the chance to prove himself worthy of such consideration down the stretch.

The Bulls have a deep young core, but they haven’t turned a corner. Even with their more encouraging play in recent weeks, many will continue to write them off. They’ve struggled mightily against playoff teams, and 21 of their remaining 32 games are against playoff teams. It’s going to be an uphill climb.

At the same time, it’s not as if they’re chasing overwhelming Death Stars in the East.

The Orlando Magic (21-27), who own the seventh seed, are stagnant offensively and have been unable to substantially build off their 2019 playoff appearance; while Kyrie Irving is back, the Brooklyn Nets (20-26), who own the eighth seed, have been inconsistent offensively and plagued by injuries.

The bottom of the East is for the taking. It’s a matter of whether a team on the outside looking in at the playoffs is going to step up. If Chicago gets on a roll, they can give the Nets and Magic a run for their money. They have the talent to be a playoff team and one of the best scorers in the sport leading the way.

When a team is knocking on the door of the playoffs, their star player is often pegged as the one who needs to step up and get his team in the playoffs. LaVine has said that he thinks he’s an All-Star. While there’s merit behind that thinking, it’s bold of him to publicly assert such a statement when his team is yet to have that breakout season.

Well, he has the chance to backup his words and cement himself in the same echelon as James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and other top-tier guards down the home stretch of the regular season. He certainly has similar talent to the aforementioned players but not the same track record in regards to simply getting into the playoffs.

Making the playoffs would be an enormous step in the right direction for the Bulls. Their core can get invaluable playoff experience, and playing well will attract big-name players to Chicago.

Chicago has a franchise player in LaVine. His play is supposed to attract players to the Windy City. In the meantime, he has to get the Bulls to the playoffs to get their capabilities on the big stage.

The sky is the limit for the 24-year-old Zach LaVine, but can he turn that potential into more wins for the Bulls?