Why Zach LaVine is the crown jewel of the 2022 NBA free agency class

Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images /

Zach LaVine will likely command a max contract as soon as NBA free agency opens. Digging into his offensive production shows he’s worth every penny.

According to recent reports, unrestricted free agent Zach LaVine will command a max contract tomorrow the moment the clock strikes 6:00 p.m. on the East Coast. This makes sense because, after all, LaVine ranks as one of the most prized free agents on the market.

However, a max deal for LaVine raises plenty of questions. Is he worth a max deal? What about his game makes him so invaluable? And can a team really make a deep run with him as a centerpiece?

All-Stars get max contracts

In his recent book, The Midrange Theory, Seth Partnow dedicates an entire chapter to discussing the NBA’s salary cap structure. Within this section, he outlines the parameters for dishing out max contracts.

He states: “[j]ust as there are three levels of max contract, there are three levels of max players. Between three and seven players per season are worth 12 or more wins, true “supermax” level. Another 10 to 15 produce between 10 and 12 wins, worthy of the 30% “veteran max.” And 20 to 25 produce eight or more wins, justifying the rookie max.”

Seeing as though LaVine has been anointed the title of All-Star in each of the last two seasons and was an original selection – not a replacement – it is safe to presume that he is somewhere in the ballpark of a top-22 player and therefore worthy of the “veteran max.”

It is also worth noting that, while he is technically a veteran in experience, he is still only 27 years old and has plenty of time to ascend even further up the league hierarchy.

Invaluable scoring

The two traits that transfer the best from the regular season to the postseason are silver bullet athleticism and versatility. Luckily for LaVine, he possesses both of these qualities.

Silver bullet athleticism is incredibly valuable because of how difficult it is for opposing defenses to account for it. For instance, Shaquille O’Neal was an excellent playoff performer because of the sheer inevitability of his overwhelming strength. Opponents can gameplan for it all they want, but there’s only so much you can do when facing that sort of anomalous power.

For LaVine, his silver bullet talent comes in the form of Flash-esque North to South speed and gravity-defying verticality. In fact, his levitation abilities are so intense that they inspired Eric Leidersdorf (the Director of Biomechanics at P3 Sports) to call LaVine “the most impressive vertical athlete we have ever seen.”

This verticality blesses him with the option to elevate and finish over defenders of any physical loadout (first clip). That is, if he hasn’t already blown by them.

LaVine’s renowned first step allows him to switch from docile to assertive in the blink of an eye (second clip). It also enables him to quickly close the gap against drop coverage like he’s Ja Morant (third clip) and relegate the best point of attack defenders in basketball to mere fodder (fourth clip).

He’s an unstoppable locomotive, like that train from the Tony Scott movie. In the playoffs, even the best defenses will struggle to concoct a formula that can defang his athleticism. And if they somehow do, he has a versatile scoring game to fall back on. To frame it in layman’s terms, he can give you the business – on and off the ball.

On-ball, he can operate in isolation or as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. We’ve already seen that he can drive in those spots, but he’s also got a dribble pull-up, a separation-inducing stepback, and a variation of the MJ fallaway jumper in his bag of tricks.

Off-ball, the Bulls frequently utilize him as a cutter, a finisher in transition, an advantage capitalizer in catch-and-shoot situation, a release valve in Spain pick and roll, a popper in ghost actions with DeMar DeRozan, and as a scorer in Miami actions.

The breadth of his scoring prowess is best understood when you look at his tracking stats, where in 2021-22, he finished in the 78th percentile or higher in six different playtype categories.

The more optionality LaVine has in his arsenal, the more counters he has to potential playoff opponents, making his scoring even more resilient and incredibly valuable to whatever team he’s on.

Then what happened to Zach LaVine in the playoffs?

If you have been following along, you probably asked yourself, what is this guy talking about? LaVine was in the postseason this year, and his performance was nothing special.

Well, if you dig into the weeds of the series, you’ll notice that LaVine’s execution during the first round was solid. Their loss was more about DeRozan’s inability to create advantages and Nikola Vucevic’s inability to burn the Bucks when they left him open from 3.

Suboptimal circumstances and a small sample size shouldn’t subtract from LaVine’s value. He’s young and the length of a max deal allows whoever his employer is to fill out a roster that enhances his strengths (he might be best suited as a second option behind an elite creator). Plus, in this century, we’ve seen multiple examples of athletic, on-ball/off-ball hybrid guards contributing as offensive number 2s on teams that went deep into the playoffs.

Of course, early 2000s Kobe Bryant is the gold standard of this paradigm, but more attainable templates exist as well.

In 2011, the Dallas Mavericks won an NBA title with the speedy, sweet-shooting Jason Terry dawning the team mantle of second-best offensive player. For a large portion of the Spurs’ dynasty, whether the number one was Tim Duncan or Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili was often the unit’s second sword on offense.

Ray Allen is probably the most realistic best-case scenario for LaVine. A supreme athlete during his younger years (people forget he also participated in the Slam Dunk Contest), Allen combined his gifts with elite perimeter shooting to post numbers comparable to LaVine’s. In 2001, while flanked by offensive powerhouses Glenn Robinson and Sam Cassell, Allen led the Bucks to the best offense in the league and a Conference Finals appearance. Before coalescing with Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce at the end of the decade to win an NBA Championship in Boston.

Like Allen, LaVine’s flexible skillset portends to fit well alongside other high-end offensive talents. Now, it’s about pairing him with another player befitting one of those max tiers Seth mentioned. Such configurations typically lead to elite-level offenses and, more importantly, deep playoff runs.

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