During Zach LaVine’s turbulent Bulls tenure, his best hasn’t been good enough

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Zach LaVine’s best play over his 360 contests as a Chicago Bulls player was a pass.

He delivered it in the second game of the season, his seventh and perhaps final campaign with the franchise.

It came in a comeback, overtime home win over the Toronto Raptors. The Bulls trailed by two in the final 10 seconds. A steal led to LaVine pushing a fast break. Chaos could have ensued. But with tremendous poise, LaVine dribbled the length of the court and weaved his way into the paint. He drew a crowd. He made the right read.

LaVine whipped a beautiful baseline pass from underneath the basket to Alex Caruso in the left corner for the game-winning 3. It was the type of clutch play superstars on max contracts are expected to routinely supply. And with this Bulls season less than 10 quarters old at the time, the sequence looked like a springboard for LaVine to step into his long sought-after place among those dignitaries.

One night later, LaVine erupted for a career-high 51 points. His shot-making was superb, but his performance came in a 16-point loss at Detroit. Twenty-four hours after overcoming his eight-point night and delivering a one-point win with a pivotal pass, LaVine finished with zero assists. The stat line, regardless of context, corroborated every preconceived notion about LaVine’s game.

The two-game stretch is a tidy summation of the Zach LaVine era of Bulls basketball.

Throughout his time as the face of the franchise, LaVine’s best hasn’t been good enough. It’s why LaVine and the Bulls are on one accord about finding a trade partner sooner rather than later and allowing both parties to chart a new course. Something everyone seemed to see is finally a topic everyone is willing to discuss.

The Bulls are 150-210 in contests LaVine has played. They have advanced to the playoffs only once during LaVine’s tenure, losing in the first round to Milwaukee in five games in 2022. Since LaVine arrived from Minnesota in the blockbuster Jimmy Butler trade in 2017, the Bulls have had three coaches, two management regimes and a revolving door of players — few who fit snugly working alongside LaVine. That’s not to say LaVine has been the root of the problem. But it can’t be ignored that he’s been the one constant.

Fred Hoiberg was fired as Bulls coach 24 games into LaVine’s second season in Chicago. Jim Boylen took over and almost immediately clashed with LaVine before being fired after two seasons and a 39-84 record. Bulls coach Billy Donovan has navigated choppy waters with LaVine since arriving in 2020, most famously following a late-game benching of LaVine last season.

More than a half-dozen players have tried and failed to work as complementary pieces, from past teammates Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. to current teammates Patrick Williams, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vučević. A few enjoyed individual success. None achieved team goals.

That’s how the LaVine era will be remembered if it is indeed nearing its end. His departure will be the final shred of confirmation needed for those who have long respected his scoring but refused to consider him a winning player. A segment of fans believe the Bulls are better off without LaVine, and it appears more likely they’ll soon get to experience that reality.

What is clear now more than ever is that LaVine is not a No. 1 option who’s capable of carrying a playoff team. He gave it his best shot for the past five seasons after returning from an ACL tear late in the 2017-18 season. He blossomed into a two-time All-Star, an Olympic gold medalist and a universally recognized scoring savant. Meanwhile, the Bulls were a punching bag.

At best, the Bulls are a slightly above-average team with LaVine as their best player. The team’s front office would be wise to find a deal that works for both sides and removes them from the current treadmill of mediocrity.

When they re-signed LaVine to a five-year, $215 million contract, the Bulls bet on him continuing his upward trajectory. He had a relatively healthy 2022-23 season, showing he could lead the Bulls, not just in scoring as he did but in sustained success. LaVine was sensational in a Play-In Tournament game at Toronto last season but committed costly mistakes in the closing minutes of an elimination game at Miami.

It’s that unpredictable decision-making, in his 10th season, that still shows up and haunts LaVine at inopportune times. Defensive mistakes down the stretch against the Brooklyn Nets in the Bulls’ first In-Season Tournament game, as well as at Milwaukee on Monday continue to prevent LaVine from being the all-around, impact player the Bulls need him to be. If his scoring mentality transferred to the other side of the court, he’d be Jimmy Butler 2.0. Instead, he seems content supplying buckets.

And so the Bulls should find the best place for LaVine to do what he does best while bringing back players who will do anything it takes.

Maybe LaVine will leave and help lead a team to the NBA Finals. He’s a fabulous talent who could thrive in the right setting.

But in Chicago, where players are judged by team success above all, LaVine’s best hasn’t been nearly enough.

(Photo of Zach LaVine: Mitchell Layton / Getty Images)

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