Has Zach LaVine finally found the right formula?
There will be no NBA All-Star Game this season, for obvious reasons.
But Bulls guard Zach LaVine can still pursue his goal of playing like an all-star and he's off to a good start. After Monday's games, LaVine ranked fifth in the league in scoring at 27.4 points, with five 30-point nights in the last six games.
A year ago after 14 games, LaVine was averaging 20.9 points, which ranked 26th in the league. His assists, rebounds and field-goal percentages are up from last season, as are turnovers.
But the two most recent Bulls victories showed a different kind of growth in his game. After shooting lights-out from 3-point range two games in a row, LaVine cooled off Sunday in Dallas and scored just 10 points, but he added 10 assists and the Bulls won comfortably.
When Monday's game against Houston grew tense in the final minutes, LaVine found Thad Young and Lauri Markkanen for open 3-pointers that sealed the victory.
A couple of Bulls teammates talked about LaVine's progress after the win over the Rockets, in which LaVine had 33 points, 7 assists and hit 11 of 16 shots.
"He's trusting us, he's trusting other guys to make shots," Young said. "And he knows opposing teams are going to come in here and try to double- and triple-team him and keep him from driving the basketball and getting scores. So he's been making great reads."
LaVine has also been biding his time, getting his teammates involved early, then picking up his scoring as needed later in the game. It's not always perfect -- he had 6 turnovers in the loss to Oklahoma City last Friday -- but LaVine seems to be following habits of highly successful NBA players.
"I just think he cares, like his care for winning has went to another level," Denzel Valentine said. "He's watching more film, he's talking to guys more about where they like the ball. After practice the other day, he's talking to Lauri (Markkanen) and Wendell (Carter Jr.), trying to figure out the pick-and-roll."
LaVine has no doubt benefited from having more veterans on the floor with him this season. New addition Garrett Temple has been one of the team leaders in minutes played and 3-point percentage, as well as an actual leader who can help guide younger teammates through tough stretches as they happen.
Defense is still a work in progress for the Bulls. They rank 28th in the league in points allowed (120) and 27th in defensive rating. Among individuals, LaVine and Carter have the worst defensive rating on the team, but the Bulls numbers generally reflect the strength of their bench. The second unit has been coming in and outplaying the opposing subs more often than not, so that group has better numbers.
"I've always considered myself a really good on-ball defender," LaVine said. "I don't think a lot of people are going to beat me off the dribble. But just the energy and awareness, and it comes with film and coaches being on you and me just understanding I have to do this to help us win. I have to lock in and just be better."
It's easy to disregard the Bulls' defensive issues right now, because at least their win rate has increased. They're now 6-8 after an 0-3 start, their best record after 14 games since the rebuild began in 2017.
It's tough to tell if they're genuinely a better team this year or just good at taking advantage of short-handed opponents. But that's bound to keep happening during the pandemic. The Bulls were missing four rotation players (Otto Porter, Patrick Williams, Tomas Satoransky, Chandler Hutchison) against Houston Monday.
Like the Bulls, LaVine is also on the right track. He's doing a lot of the things that will make him an all-star, he just needs to keep it up and help the Bulls stay competitive.
"I feel I've gotten better each year in the NBA," said LaVine, how in his seventh season. "Even the year I hurt myself with my ACL injury, I took things from that that helped me. Little things I hear and read I use as motivation.
"I see myself as a top guy in the league and I want to show that. I'm pretty locked in right now and I'm focused. And I'm having fun with the game."