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Bulls’ DeRozan, LaVine searching for late-game balance

Scott Procter Scott Procter BVM Sports Senior Editor/Journalist

CHICAGO (BVM) – When the Chicago Bulls are involved in one-possession games with the clock winding down, as they often are, the ball is almost always in the hands of DeMar DeRozan.

Why not?

He kicked off 2022 last New Year’s Eve by becoming the first player in NBA history to nail buzzer-beating 3-pointers in back-to-back games. DeRozan has brought the late-game heroics into the 2022-23 season after beating the New York Knicks on Dec. 23 with an ice-cold 22-foot jumper while being fouled with less than a second left.

In addition to multiple game-winners since arriving in Chicago in 2021, the numbers support DeRozan’s shot attempts late in fourth quarters. The “King of the Fourth” leads the league in “clutch” scoring with 104 points on 47.1% shooting this season.

While all that sounds good for the Bulls, DeRozan isn’t the guy the franchise just inked to a five-year, $215 million maximum contract extension this summer. That would be Zach LaVine, and the All-Star guard isn’t getting the opportunity to earn his money late in games.

“I think it is hard when you are a young star like Zach who has proven himself in a lot of ways but also still has to feel unproven in a lot of ways when you’re trying to share not just time, not just scoring, but also just kind of your role with DeMar DeRozan,” Julia Poe, Chicago Tribune’s Bulls reporter, said on an episode of BVM Sports’ Simple Question. “Look at the guy who has the ball in his hands for those game-winning, clutch shots, it is always DeMar DeRozan.

“That’s only one small piece of it but when you look at the guy who is being expected to step up and be the game winner for this team, it’s clear that it’s still DeMar even if Zach is the max contract player.”

LaVine – who made his second consecutive All-Star team last season – used to be the sole option in late-game scenarios for the rebuilding Bulls before DeRozan’s arrival in Chicago. This season, according to NBA.com, DeRozan has taken 20 of the Bulls’ 39 field-goal attempts inside the final minute of one-possession games compared to just six for LaVine.

Bulls head coach Billy Donovan acknowledged the late-game shot discrepancy as well as DeRozan’s penchant for hitting clutch buckets.

“I totally trust Zach and I have no problem with Zach with the ball in his hands and I have no problem with Zach shooting the ball at the end of games at all,” Donovan told reporters before the Bulls’ 121-112 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday. “But I also think everybody here would agree that what DeMar has done at the end of games has been pretty powerful.

“If we just went to Zach all the time, you’d be asking me, ‘You’ve got one of the greatest closers, why is DeMar not an option?’ You gotta somehow incorporate both of them.”

The Bulls are trying to return to the playoffs for the second year in a row after losing in five games to the Milwaukee Bucks during last season’s first round. To do that, Donovan, DeRozan and LaVine will have to find a better late-game balance.

As good as DeRozan has been in clutch situations, predictability will inevitably become a problem if the Bulls remain a one-man show in one-possession games. Perhaps even more important, Chicago will never know if LaVine is capable of making the shots his max contract suggests that he can if he never gets the opportunity.

“If Zach isn’t taking game-winning shots, you’re not going to know if he’s making them or missing them because he’s simply, plainly not taking them,” Poe said. “When you have this many games coming down to situations like that and Zach is never getting called on, it’s not surprising that it’s going to cause some level of wondering ‘What am I supposed to do here then?’ even if lots of times DeMar is winning those games.”