McGraw: Why do Bulls keep winning when LaVine doesn't play?
The Bulls pulled off an unexpected victory in Miami on Wednesday, but the result did follow a trend that began last season.
They've had more team success when leading scorer Zach LaVine doesn't play.
It doesn't necessarily make a lot of sense, but the bottom line is clear -- the Bulls have gone 4-3 when LaVine doesn't play this season, including three wins in a row and the two best road victories of the year at Miami and in San Antonio on Dec. 15. He was a late scratch against the Heat due to a sore ankle.
Going back to last season, LaVine missed most of the surprising 14-7 surge. He came back from ACL surgery to play limited minutes in the final two wins of that stretch, which ended when Kris Dunn suffered a concussion against Golden State and missed a month.
Ever since he won the slam dunk contest in his first two seasons in the league, it was clear LaVine had the superstar potential that goes with his elite athleticism. LaVine is a hard-worker, talks about how team success is important and has no visible conflicts with teammates.
So what's the problem? Here's a look at three theories on why the Bulls win more often without a guy who should be their best player:
The defense is better
The numbers seem to back up this idea. In the last four games without LaVine, the Bulls have allowed 89, 92, 80 and 96 points. Twice, opponents shots below 40 percent from the field.
It's tough to measure defense with statistics, but defensive rating is one place to start. That's the number of points scored by the opposing team per 100 possessions when a certain player in on the court.
The best defensive ratings on the Bulls belong to Shaq Harrison, injured rookie Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Dunn. No surprise there. LaVine's rating is in Antonio Blakeney territory, one of the worst on the team.
A significant difference in beating Miami on Wednesday was guard Josh Richardson scoring 12 points on 4 of 15 shooting. He couldn't miss when the Heat beat the Bulls twice at the United Center earlier this season, but LaVine usually didn't have that defensive assignment. Richardson scored plenty of his Chicago points against Harrison and Ryan Arcidiacono.
But one area where LaVine still lacks is his attention to detail on defense. He loses focus when playing off the ball, loses track of his man and is slow to rotate. Maybe LaVine's lack of defensive effort carries over to his teammates.
Newcomer Wayne Selden Jr. might be the worst on the team at keeping his man in front of him and he played 35 minutes in Miami, so defense doesn't explain everything.
Dunn gets going
Something isn't right with the Dunn-Lavine backcourt. Dunn was the catalyst of last season's 14-7 surge and played well in the Bulls' four wins without LaVine this year. He hasn't been able to match that success when playing next to LaVine.
Without LaVine, Dunn has averaged 17.2 points, 6.3 assist and 14.5 shot attempts per game. Overall, Dunn is at 12.2 points, 6.3 assists and 11.5 field-goal attempts. He's a bigger part of the offense without LaVine, which is logical.
Dunn likes to get himself going at the start of games. His favorite move is the midrange pullup and he has the quickness to pull it off most any time he wants. When Dunn starts hitting this shot, it's been a great weapon for the Bulls late in games.
So maybe it's good for the team when Dunn gets some shots early. He took 4 shots in the first quarter at Miami and 3 the previous night in Brooklyn when LaVine did play, so not a big difference. But the Bulls should be going to Dunn in crunchtime, since he's the only guy on the team who has converted with any consistency.
When the Bulls pulled away from Miami in the third quarter, it was with a lineup of Dunn, Harrison, two-way player Brandon Sampson, Markkanen and Bobby Portis.
It was reminiscent of last season, when the double stretch-four lineup with Portis and Nikola Mirotic was dissecting defenses during the 14-7 surge. So maybe it's not about Dunn so much as Markkanen and Portis should be getting consistent looks.
Usage measures the percentage of a team's plays that includes a certain player while he's on the floor. LaVine leads the Bulls at 31.3 percent. Portis loves to shoot and is usually the leader of the second unit, so he's second at 26.5 percent. Markkanen is fifth, behind Blakeney and Jabari Parker, which is not ideal. Dunn is sixth.
Markkanen may finally feel healthy after starting the season with a right elbow sprain. He's averaged 17.7 points and 15.7 rebounds in the past three games.
It wouldn't be wrong to say the Bulls beat Miami because Portis (26 points) had his best game in a while, or Markkanen is rolling or Richardson was off his game.
Winning without LaVine has happened too many times to be a coincidence, though. The Bulls' first-quarter defensive effort, allowing 19 points on 34.8-percent shooting, came with Dunn, Arcidiacono and Harrison being aggressive from the opening tip. There's a lesson to be learned there.