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The Risk of Zach LaVine

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Offering a large contract to the Bulls guard would be the biggest free agent gamble of Vlade’s career.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Today marks the seventh day of free agency, and the Kings have yet to pull the trigger on a single transaction. Vlade Divac’s patient attitude towards the market is a risky strategy that could pay heavy dividends if things work out in his favor, as most of the teams entering the summer have spent their allowances, leaving Sacramento, Chicago, and Atlanta with the only full wallets. Even though many agreements have been reached, several options remain on the table for the Kings, with multiple organizations looking to dump bad contracts for draft considerations, while a bevy of talented, young players are still waiting for a contract offer to be sent their way.

Over the last 72 hours, a name has emerged from the ether that the vast majority of the fanbase would never have linked to the Kings: Zach LaVine. Rumor god Adrian Wojnarowski mentioned the Kings being “pretty serious” about making the Bulls guard an offer in the coming days, a turn of events that has surprised many.

The oddity of the Kings interest stems from the seeming redundancy that LaVine would present on a roster already chockfull of talented shooting guards; shoveling piles of cash at a free agent who plays the same position as your two best contributors from last season seems like an unwise investment. On the other hand, the Kings need a massive injection of talent into this depth chart, and fit may not take priority over the possibility of adding a 23-year old who was the main asset used in the Jimmy Butler trade. LaVine presents both a tantalizing opportunity to take advantage of a weak market, and a questionable addition to a team that needs a small forward much more than a combo guard.

Prior to considering the addition of Zach LaVine, the Kings need to answer two critical questions before an offer is made. Considering the sizable contract that will need to be offered, is he a significantly better player than Buddy Hield? And if he isn’t a clear upgrade, is his overall talent level worth the risk of squeezing him onto an already unbalanced roster?

First, the showdown between the Buddy Hield and Zach LaVine:

Durability

The addition of LaVine doesn’t solely present a risk due to the fact that he may not be a perfect fit. Part of the reason he’s even available at this stage in his career is his significant injury history. In February of 2017, the former lottery pick tore his ACL in a game against the Pistons, the diagnosis leading to a loss of more than a full season. Over the last two years, he’s missed 57% of possible games, sitting in a suit for 93 out of 146 contests. The possibility of re-injury, or never fully recovering from the damaged ligament, is something that must be considered.

Meanwhile, Buddy Hield has been unavailable for just two games in his time in the NBA due to a minor ankle sprain. The luxury of having a player who is healthy night in and night out cannot be overlooked. He’s had a shorter stint in the league, but the Bahamian Baller’s lack of missed time grants him a clear edge over Zach LaVine.

Scoring

A quick glance at the raw numbers appears to give LaVine the advantage in the scoring department. Last season, he averaged 16.7 points per game, compared to Hield’s 13.5; however, the way in which he got that pile of points is a little less than encouraging. Zach wasn’t particularly efficient in his singular season in Chicago, shooting just 38% from the floor and recording a true shooting percentage of only .499. On the other hand, Buddy shot 45% from the field, and was able to get all the way up to a .557 true shooting percentage.

Hield is also the superior shooter from deep. He nailed 43.1% of his three-pointers, good for 10th in the league among qualified players, while LaVine had a below-average showing, only hitting 34.1% of his shots, ranking 130th in the NBA. To be fair, Zach’s percentage was significantly better in his last full season, back in 2015-2016, in which he made 39% of his long-balls, which would have placed him in the 47th spot.

Transition scoring, a concept that will be incredibly important for this core moving forward, also sits firmly in Hield’s corner. Buddy was able to score 1.08 points per possession with a 59.7% field goal efficiency. LaVine scored just 0.93 points per possession, and posted an effective field goal percentage of 47.2%. Neither player was in the upper echelon of the NBA, but Hield was a far more effective player in the open court.

The one scoring statistic that does favor LaVine is his aggressiveness. Buddy was the more efficient player, but also played passively much too frequently, something that hurt his impact on the floor. Zach is a volume scorer, a term often conveniently substituted for inefficient, but the Kings also struggled mightily to put the ball in the basketball last season, a role the Bulls guard would love to fill. He averaged 22 points per-36 minutes, a number that beats every member of the Kings last season, also trumping Hield’s 19.2 points per-36 minutes.

Traditional Guard Play

Zach LaVine’s nature as a combo guard is something that’s currently missing on the roster. He has cycled back and forth between point guard and shooting guard in his career, although his most recent seasons have seen him almost exclusively at the two-spot, as he spent 99% of his time there in his final year in Minnesota and 89% of his minutes there in Chicago. On the flip-side, Buddy Hield should never, ever, ever, ever play point guard with his current lack of ball-handling skills, but he can play sparingly as a small forward.

LaVine also recorded a much higher assist percentage; his 18.6% blowing Buddy’s 12.8% out of the water. Although a higher number of his passes end up as buckets for his teammates, Zach was actually less likely to move the ball around the court than Buddy in the 2017-2018 campaign. He received 37.9 passes per game last season, but averaged just 26.4 passes. Hield was dished the ball 29.5 times per game, and moved the rock 25.3 times, a much higher ratio. LaVine is much likelier to attack, while Buddy has a higher tendency to keep the ball moving.

If the Front Office is looking to upgrade the backup point guard position, while also moving Frank Mason to the break glass in case of emergency slot, Zach LaVine’s versatility would allow them to meet that need.

Defense

Neither Buddy Hield nor Zach LaVine has built a reputation as a strong defender up until this point in their respective careers, although Buddy did show signs of growth last season. Both of the guards played for bad teams, as Chicago and Sacramento ended the year tied with the same poor records, and both of those teams also played awful defense, with the Bulls ending the season at a 109.1 defensive rating, and the Kings ending at 108.9. On an individual basis, Hield wins the battle of defensive rating, just one metric among many others, as he was the third best rotational player on the Kings, finishing the year with a rating of 106.5. LaVine did not enjoy the same success. Here’s a look at the five worst defensive ratings among qualified players last season:

Worst Defensive Ratings

Player Defensive Rating
Player Defensive Rating
Kobi Simmons 117.5
Zach LaVine 114.8
Zach Randolph 114.3
Elrid Payton 114.3
Trey Burke 114.2

Two familiar Zachs pop up on that list: LaVine and Randolph. It would certainly be a brave endeavor to employ two of the five worst defenders on the same team. Interestingly enough, although his defensive rating was the second-worst in the entire NBA, he had some success in stopping individual shooters.

Stopping Shooters

Player Overall DFG% 3P DFG% 2P DFG%
Player Overall DFG% 3P DFG% 2P DFG%
LaVine -1.5% -3.2% 1.7%
Hield 3.1% -2.3% 6.0%

The plan to play Buddy Hield or Zach LaVine 30 minutes per game probably isn’t motivated by a desire to create as stalwart a defense as possible, as each player is much more effective on the offensive side of the floor.

Obvious advantages exist for each potential star as well. Buddy Hield has 22 career dunks and isn’t a human highlight real; meanwhile, LaVine can jump out of the gym and over most defenders, something that could be pretty fun to watch alongside De’Aaron Fox, Harry Giles, and Marvin Bagley. Hield is the better rebounder, although not by much, and Zach gets more assists. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and the study of thier advanced statistics, individual contributions, and fit of both players doesn’t paint a clear picture of Lavine over Hield. In fact, the numbers probably push Buddy slightly over Zach, although an argument in the other direction isn’t completely out of touch with reality, either.

Beyond Buddy

The riskiness of a potential signing doesn’t end with a comparison between the two guards; several additional issues arise when contemplating Zach LaVine in a Kings uniform. The first is a combination of his durability, or lack thereof, and the massive investment that may be needed to lure him to Sacramento. LaVine is a restricted free agent, meaning Chicago will have 48 hours to match any offer sheet that he signs once the moratorium lifts today. The Front Office gets one shot to offer LaVine a lucrative enough deal to attract him here, that doesn’t represent a massive overpay, that stays within the approximate $18 million they have in cap space, and pushes Chicago, a team with $40 million of their own cap space, to give up on the main component of the Jimmy Butler deal last June. It’s a narrow path to walk for our management group. One avenue the Kings could take is that of a sign-and-trade. Vlade could offer Skal Labissiere and a second round pick to Gar Forman in an attempt to make the loss of LaVine more palatable to the Bulls Front Office.

There are also only so many minutes to go around, and Dave Joerger can only take the concept of position-less basketball so far before things get wacky. Between the point guard, shooting guard, and small forward slots, 144 minutes are available to dole out by the coaching staff. De’Aaron Fox needs 36 minutes per game, while Hield, LaVine, and Bogdanovic would all deserve at least 30. If that disbursement of playing time occurs, only 18 total minutes are left to divvy between Garrett Temple, Frank Mason, Iman Shumpert, and Justin Jackson: a tough ask of the veterans and developing prospects. If the coaching staff feels the need to syphon off time from one of the four best guards to keep players happy, they’re reducing the impact of their most talented options. Both scenarios carry immense potential for frustration spiking in the locker room.

Assuming the Kings don’t move any of their guards, LaVine’s acquisition would also force multiple players out of their optimal positions. Bogdan Bogdanovic would likely become the full-time starting wing, even though his size and skill set is more indicative of an off-guard. As impressive as he was as a rookie, imagine the increase his production would have seen if he had been slotted next to a capable small forward for the entire year. Buddy Hield would be put in a similar situation if he received 30 minutes per game, while Zach LaVine would find a large portion of his time at point guard. A team lacking in overall talent needs to ensure they are maximizing the potential of their best players, rather than hindering it by placing them in awkward positions, which is exactly what the Kings would be doing.

Vlade Divac’s reported interest in Zach LaVine isn’t an inherently bad thing. If one tilts their head and squints slightly, the signing makes sense in a roundabout sort of way. The Kings need talent and LaVine is quite talented. He is a massive upgrade to Frank Mason as a backup point guard. The option to start Zach also keeps an elite scoring option off of the bench in Buddy Hield. It might just work out.

Then again, adding a third shooting guard to a team in desperate need of a small forward makes about as much sense as a Gavin Maloof business decision. LaVine is not a 2/3. He’s slotted in at small forward for 66 of his 6,601 career minutes, meaning he cannot fill the Chuck Hayes-sized gap at wing for a team whose best option is currently Justin Jackson or an out of position Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Bulls guard also presents a large gamble due to his injury history, as well as the size of the contract that will need to be offered to snatch him from Chicago’s grasp. Similar to Jabari Parker, a healthy LaVine at $16 million per year is a steal, while an oft-injured version of the same player is a cap-killer.

If the Front Office is planning to move one or more of the other guards on the team for a starting caliber small forward, or if they’re comfortable moving Bogdan Bogdanovic to a full-time wing while benching the veterans, targeting Zach LaVine is a justifiable risk. However, if Vlade Divac believes he is a clear upgrade to Buddy Hield, or that LaVine solves the issue at small forward, the signing would represent another blunder for a management team that has struggled to make an impact in free agency.