Before the league’s health and safety protocols tapped Zach LaVine out of Game 5 of the first-round playoff series, the Bulls guard was walking a fine line when discussing his left knee issues.
LaVine was doing his best to downplay the severity of the pain he’s been dealing with, but at the same time reminding everyone that the player everyone was seeing at the start of this season was not the same player on either side of the ball by the end.
Not easy to do considering what’s at stake for LaVine this offseason, as he walks into unrestricted free agency and his expected first huge pay day.
Maybe that’s why LaVine wasn’t completely transparent with the injury.
Back in early March, LaVine was discussing the severity of the discomfort and said, “me at 80%, 70%, whatever it is, I’m still one of the best players in the NBA and damn sure one of the best players on the court when we play.”
According to a source close to the situation, however, LaVine’s knee was “more like 50% and that’s on a good day.”
The source also said the maintenance of the knee the past few months was an all-day ordeal, and that there would have been a good number of All-Star-type players that would have shut it down for the season with all LaVine had to deal with.
And while LaVine wouldn’t come out and say for sure he was headed for off-season surgery — likely a scope — the source said he will in fact have surgery almost immediately this offseason. One scenario that had been ruled out, according to the source, was that the knee was degenerative and LaVine would be dealing with this long-term.
Good news for both the Bulls and LaVine, who by all expectations will sit down at some point together to discuss a max contract to keep LaVine a Bull. That doesn’t mean executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas deems LaVine untouchable from a sign-and-trade if an unexpected deal presents itself, but as of now the two sides seem to be on the same page with the direction of the roster.
The leap of faith the Bulls will be taking in this is that they will be extending the LaVine they watched play last summer with Team USA, and the one they had through December, before the knee really started swelling and giving the guard discomfort.
The numbers on both sides of the ball, especially defensive, tell the story of just how much LaVine was hampered.
While it was only six games in October, LaVine served notice to everyone how serious he was about playing on both ends of the floor, coming out and averaging 25.5 points per game on 48.1% shooting, but more impressively posting a 105.1 defensive rating, according to StatMuse.
The best defensive efficiency rating of LaVine’s career came in the 2019-20 season, when he posted a 110.4, so he was on pace to completely smash that.
By the time the knee started becoming a daily issue at the end of December, however, LaVine’s defense went out the window. In January, the efficiency was 117, by February 119.9, and in his 14 games played in March it was up to 121.5.
Obviously, the schedule was tougher in March, but LaVine’s offensive numbers were also down across the board in the second half.
So is maxing LaVine a dangerous gamble for the Bulls? Not if the LaVine they are investing in is the one they saw in the first few months of the season.
NOTE: Alex Caruso will miss Game 5 of the series, unable to test out of the concussion protocol. Caruso had to leave in the second quarter of Game 4 when he took a blow to the head.