Re-Beating A Dead Horse: The Zach LaVine Question

People have been arguing about what position Zach LaVine should play since before he was drafted. Today I add my voice to the cacophony.

Much has been made of the reluctance of Sam Mitchell, and the late, great, Flip Saunders before him, to play Zach LaVine at shooting guard, the position in which he so clearly thrives. Instead, the team stubbornly tried to pound a clearly square peg into an obviously round hole. This became a much-discussed issue last season, as LaVine was often the only player running the team when Rubio was out with an injury.

This summer, Mitchell told LaVine that the starting two-guard spot was his. He’d spent the summer preparing for life as a full-time shooting guard, and was getting the shot he needed, but at the last minute, Mitchell went with Prince as his fifth starter, manning the three.

For a while, Mitchell went back and forth. Sometimes he’d leave LaVine out there by himself, sometimes he’d put him in with Professor Dre, sometimes with Rubio. But as the roster tightened, Miller fell out of the rotation (along with Adriean Payne, thankfully), Tyus Jones was never in it, and so once again, LaVine has been stuck as the backup point guard in a unit that can’t really cover for his weaknesses and doesn’t really play to his strengths.

As a result, LaVine’s number for this season aren’t drastically different from last year’s. In some ways, he’s actually taken a step backwards. His shot chart is consistent from last year: highly efficient at the rim and from the left corner, wildly inefficient from everywhere else. His usage rate is up, but his assists are down and his TS% has dropped to 251st in the league (50.5% from 51.5% last year).

And yet, still the Wolves trot him out there as the lead ball handler for big stretches of time. Why? Why do they refuse to see the simple truth?

The answer, or at least an answer, is Andrew Wiggins. The young superstar-in-progress is going to be a remarkable player no matter what position you play him, but to unleash maximum devastation, he should be playing as many minutes at the two as possible. The list of shooting guards in the NBA 6’8 or taller reads as follows: Nicholas Batum, Bojan Bogdanovic, Mario Hezonja, Rodney Hood, Khris Middleton, and Wiggins. Of those two, only Batum, Middleton, and maybe Hood have a chance to keep up with the reigning ROY. The average height for a shooting guard is 6’5, so that gives Wiggins on most nights a full three inches of daylight, openings he can use to find the bucket and hopefully in the future, pass to open teammates. Think of how much less effective Klay Thompson would be if he were a full-time small forward instead of shooting guard. He couldn’t post up his matchup as easily, and would often even be at a height disadvantage. The same holds true for Wiggins.

Wiggins, unlike LaVine, has upped his efficiency despite increasing his usage percentage to 28.4%, up from 22.6% last season, and despite an awful shooting year from distance (24.3% from three). He is the team’s offensive centerpiece and go-to guy for clutch buckets. He still has a lot of work to do: he must become much more aggressive going after rebounds and passing to his teammates if the Wolves are ever going to be an elite team. But the rough outline is clear.

So if LaVine is best suited as a shooting guard, and the Wolves have a franchise cornerstone shooting guard already in place, where does that leave the young dunk champion?

This is what the Timberwolves have been trying to find out with their point guard experiments. Maybe they’ve been foolhardy and stubborn, but forcing LaVine to develop his ball-handling, awareness, and on-court leadership should only yield positive results going forward. As Zach Lowe alluded to earlier this season, the Wolves were also hoping that maybe LaVine could develop to make Rubio unnecessary and tradeable. As anyone who has watched them play without their Spanish maestro can attest to, that’s probably not in the cards.

LaVine could almost certainly be a starting combo guard on a lot of (mediocre) teams. In time, he could develop into not only an exciting player, but one that positively, consistently contributes on both ends. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that that will be his fate in Minnesota. Instead, he seems destined for a Jamal Crawford-esque sixth man role, as much as it pains me to say. If that’s something he’s willing to take on, it will be wonderful for everyone involved, although not everyone has what it takes to be Manu Ginobili.

There are ways, however, that the question could solve itself. Say, for example, the Wolves were able to miraculously land yet another first overall pick, and add Ben Simmons to their team. With Simmons as their starting three/four, the Wolves would have no need of a traditional point guard who can’t shoot, instead, like many of LeBron’s teams, they would need a player who could hit a spot-up three, move off the ball, be a secondary ball-handler, and play defense. That sounds like a role Zach LaVine would thrive in. Plus, a core of LaVine, Wiggins, Simmons, Towns, and some collection of Shabazz, Gorgui, and Bjelica would be so damn athletic, versatile, and exciting that even noted narcoleptic Ben Carson would be shocked wide awake for their games.

Obviously the chances of landing yet another foundational talent are slim, but it’s worth considering. Again, Wiggins can definitely play the three and play it well, but I think Mitchell is right in keeping him at the two for as much time as possible. Hopefully LaVine is on board with coming off the bench for a while.

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