After all, Chicago had dealt a legitimate two-way star in Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Zach LaVine–who was still recovering from an ACL tear at the time–and unproven point guard Kris Dunn. When the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen with the No. 7 overall pick that they also acquired from Minnesota, all of Twitter (and, more specifically, Bill Simmons) seemed to lose their collective minds.
Fast forward two years, and the Bulls are likely in a much more beneficial place than they would have been if they kept Butler. Not to mention, LaVine has become one of the most exciting young talents in the game.
The UCLA product set career highs in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (.467), proving himself to be one of the better scoring guards in basketball with a combination of a smooth stroke from beyond the arc as well as the ability to finish at the rim.
As they look to a 2019-20 season where they hope to contend for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are hoping that LaVine continues to make individual strides toward becoming a franchise player in the Windy.
Having broken out, how can LaVine make the leap to becoming a truly elite NBA talent?
Become an off-ball threat
LaVine has a dynamic offensive game, but he often needs to be on the ball in order to make plays. LaVine ranked 12th among qualified players in usage rate, according to NBA.com.
Although he has proven very competent in pick-and-roll and developed into one of the better shot creators in the NBA, his movement and spacing were not always there. Both facets of his game need to improve this season.
After becoming dismayed by Dunn’s lack of progression, the No. 1 priority for John Paxson, Gar Forman and co. this summer was to bring in impact guards that could prove to be playmakers and distributors for guys like LaVine, Markkanen and Otto Porter.
The front office drafted Coby White out of North Carolina while also signing former Washington Wizards point guard Tomas Satoransky, giving head coach Jim Boylen a couple of promising options to run the point. However, they are also two guys that will need to see a lot of the ball to set up their teammates.
White is at his best when he gets the ball and is allowed to push the pace in transition, while Satoransky is most effective in the half court, though he has also shown bursts of athleticism throughout his career. In any case, these playing styles necessitate that LaVine will have to become a more pronounced off-ball threat.
This should not be especially difficult, given how well he shoots the ball from beyond the arc (over 37 percent for his career).
Pushing the pace with White should not be an issue either, but LaVine will have to be an effective cutter to make things easier on his point guards in the half court.
Defense, defense, defense
LaVine’s struggles on the defensive side of the ball are nothing new. Similar to some of his struggles on the offensive end, much of this stems from his work rate and a lack of defensive awareness off the ball.
Is it possible that this stems from youth and a lack of consistent reps? After all, LaVine actually showed some flashes as an on-ball defender, and he has the quickness and agility to be able to stay with nearly any opposing guard in the league. The physicality is not an issue. The effort and instincts, however, have been consistent problems.
The Bulls need to be a better team defensively next season. Wendell Carter Jr.’s return to the rotation should have a big impact in that regard, but the defensive backcourt needs to be more stout. LaVine might be the one player that could really swing things due to his athleticism and playmaking capability.
Boylen has made his living on being a defensive coach, but he sort of had to let his young players coast and figure things out for themselves towards the end of last season.
Can he rediscover his instincts and inspire guys like LaVine to be tireless defenders?
Continue to embrace leadership role
Despite the fact that he is only 24 years old, LaVine has already asserted himself as the leader of a young Bulls.
He was extremely throughout the season, consistently professing his belief that the Bulls were a better team than their record while offering to pay Boylen’s fine when he was ejected from a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in March.
In April, LaVine told Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times that the Bulls would be a playoff team next season:
‘‘There’s no reason you shouldn’t think that,’’ he said. ‘‘I think we have enough talent. There are things we have to do better, but talent-wise, on paper, I don’t see a lot of teams better than us in the East. I think we should be a playoff team.’’
This is exactly the kind of tone that LaVine needs to set for his teammates. He needs to be the guy that inspires his teammates to compete and play harder when the going gets tough.
But as he looks to take the next step, he must apply that same level of discipline and hunger to his own game, on both sides of the ball.