Ontology and Possibility: On the nature of Zach LaVine’s position

Zach LaVine Young

A week and a half into the season, the Wolves are 3-2, and could easily be 4-1 if a few controversial calls in the final minute of last week’s Blazers game had gone the other way. Things are mostly good; everyone is still healthy (save Nikola Pekovic, of course, who is still recovering from achilles surgery), Karl-Anthony Towns looks like the real deal, the teams is getting to the line at a positively absurd rate, and their crunch-time defense has been especially stout.

The main source of consternation has been Sam Mitchell’s rotations, specifically the employment of Zach LaVine as the team’s primary backup point guard. After being named Minnesota’s starting 2-guard early in training camp, LaVine lost that job, and was demoted to point guard of the second unit, a move that has garnered much scrutiny.

Many people believe if LaVine is going to maximize his potential, it’ll be at shooting guard. Those folks were given all kinds of ammunition once the numbers from Saturday night’s road victory over the Bulls came in; during the 10 minutes (and 22 possessions) LaVine spent on the floor with Ricky Rubio (and thus playing off the ball), the Wolves scored 1.445 points per possession, sank 14 of 19 field goal attempts and outscored Chicago 32-to-14.

Until Saturday, however, Rubio and LaVine hadn’t shared the floor. For the season, when the two are separated, Minnesota has outscored opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions when Ricky Rubio is on the floor and Zach LaVine is on the bench. When the spots are flipped (Zach on, Ricky off), the team is outscored by 18.1 points per 100 possessions. When Nemanja Bjelica and Kevin Martin play with Rubio, their True Shooting percentages are 60.6% and 66.7%, respectively. When Bjelica and Martin play with LaVine, those numbers plummet to 48.4% and 59.4%. The samples sizes are small, but the numbers from 2015-16 seem to show that players perform much better when Ricky is running point:

rubio and lavine

Those who are upset that LaVine is spending so much time at the 1 lament the fact that he “is” not a point guard. Therefore, playing him there is either a waste of time (at best) or harming the development of his fellow second teamers (at worst). They might still believe in the young man’s overall potential, so they absolve or greatly minimize LaVine’s part in his own uneven play because he plays outside of his “natural” position.

That all presupposes something: what, exactly, Zach LaVine is.

What is the nature of a position, exactly? They’re dictated by a mixture of objective factors such as height, weight, build, and wingspan, along with subjective factors such as “feel for the game,” “toughness,” or “basketball IQ.” It’s a curious question no matter what sport you’re analyzing. Are there intrinsic traits point guards ought to possess? How about cornerbacks in football, or defensemen in hockey, or goalkeepers in soccer, or catchers in baseball? Who decides, and when, what a certain player “is”? If it’s at all ambiguous, why not keep an open mind about an athlete changing positions? If the player in question is young enough (and raw enough), why not explore that in earnest? It’d be a mistake to conclude from the numbers above (and last season’s dreadful showing) that LaVine is hopeless as a point guard.

When it comes to LaVine’s situation, it’s important to remember that his ultimate spot doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. It’s possible LaVine ends up a playmaking combo guard who you would never want as a full-time point, which can still be a very useful player (a la Jamal Crawford). LaVine’s age should also be considered (he can’t even legally drink until March), as well as his inexperience with quality talent around him (he played 900 collegiate minutes, plus 1900 minutes on a 16-win team his rookie season in the NBA). He is, by many accounts, a tireless worker. A point guard who can hold his own for stretches in two guard lineups is worth a bit more to a team than a two guard who teases with shooting ability and raw athleticism. If there’s any chance he can become the former, why give up on it to pigeonhole him as the latter? Especially on a team that should only win around 30 or so games, and should (justifiably) use this season as a learning experience?

That’s the philosophical side of things, but there are pragmatic reasons why LaVine as the second unit point guard makes sense for the time being. First, he’s still wire thin. He gets cleaned out on screens, which is what everyone notices about him on the defensive end, but bumping him up to face larger players at the 2 probably isn’t the answer to those woes. Where the Wolves can get away with it is when opponents employ two point guard lineups, as the Bulls did on Saturday (mixing Derrick Rose, E’Twaun Moore and Aaron Brooks in the backcourt of much of the game).

Secondly, Minnesota has to find minutes for a bunch of wings; Andrew Wiggins, Tayshaun Prince, Shabazz Muhammad, and Kevin Martin all deserve to get time. Bumping LaVine to point guard eases the logjam. If Andre Miller were to play the 15-18 minutes Rubio sits, there’d be far fewer minutes to go around. It’s no coincidence that we saw LaVine’s first extended time off the ball on a night when one of those wings (Kevin Martin) was out (for personal reasons – he is expected back for tonight’s game in Atlanta). It’s possible a trade or injury will take the minutes problem off of the coaching staff’s hands, and they won’t even have to decide how long to ride out the Zach LaVine point guard experiment, but until then, it’s perfectly pragmatic to keep him there.

Rather than criticizing how he’s been handled, perhaps it’s time to look at it another way. LaVine has been asked to learn to play point guard, and he’s still bad at it. His feel for running the pick and roll, decision-making, and timing on passes don’t appear to have improved much since he came into the league. It makes sense to be patient with him, but at some point, he must improve at what he’s being asked to do. The fear that he could harm the development of his fellow second-teamers (Bazzy, Bjelica, and Gorgui) is a valid one, but such a thing is difficult to tell a mere five games into an 82 game season.

There will come a time to fish or cut bait on the idea of LaVine as a point guard, but that time isn’t now. That isn’t to say he has been a good point guard; he hasn’t. As the Wolves get better and better, minutes will have to be earned. Either LaVine will rise to the occasion and improve, or he will not. That’s up to him. We still have time for Zach LaVine to show us what he is, rather than making final judgments on his position already.

All stats per NBAwowy, which is an amazing website you should totally visit.
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7 Responsesso far.

  1. mikeskunes says:

    First: As a philosophy major, I’m smiling at your use of ontology, Will.

    Second: I think when analyzing players skill sets, I think it makes most sense to break it down to the more essential nature of properties that help you win a basketball game (ESPN tried to do this when they did a sketch on the “new positions” in basketball a year ago). Skills that help teams win games: dribbling, facilitating, shooting, scoring, hustle, positioning, on-ball defense, rim protection. Some of these skills are more easily quantifiable (shooting = TS% or 3pt%, scoring = PTS per 36, FG%, hustle = REB, STLS, rim protection = BLKS), but the ones that usually are attributed to PGs are also the most difficult to quantify (dribbling, facilitating, positioning, on-ball defense). I feel like the traditional positions were born out not out of pigeon-holing people based on height, but by trying to diversify the skill-set the five guys could have.

    The problem with Zach LaVine as the point guard is not that he doesn’t fit the platonic ideal of point-guardness. The problem is that when Zach is on the floor, his subpar ability to facilitate an offense, be in the right position, and help others get in the right position leaves no one else on the floor who can do so. You can succeed without a traditional point guard, but only when you have other guys whose skills transcend position or conventional wisdom. And the Wolves don’t have anyone talented enough right now to cover the deficiencies of their teammates in either their first or second unit.

    I keep saying: I like Zach, I think he’ll be a fine NBA player, and I don’t think he can’t develop the skills necessary to be a great point-guard. But he doesn’t have them, yet, and a lot of other people do. It doesn’t make sense to give Zach responsibilities that are a poor fit for his current skills. There has to be point when a guy is floundering in his on-the-job-training in which you make the decision to say “let’s change our tactics in trying to develop you” or “let’s give you a role more suited to the skills you already have”. I think most die-hard Wolves fans are ready for the coaching staff to make one of those decisions.

  2. pyrrol says:

    Yeah, with LaVine, particularly with the position question you hear a lot of excuses. Oh, he’s still skinny, oh, he’s still so inexperienced, oh he’s had bad players around him, oh he hardly played in college. None of these matter. No one expects LaVine to be a perfect NBA point guard, or shooting guard or combo guard at this point. We expect a rough product. But he’s shown zero natural aptitude for point guard so far. And the clock is ticking for him to show even a spark of aptitude for the position.

    There are problems with the him at 2 guard I’m sure. He’s not super tall for that position, although many successful 2’s are 6’4″ and LaVine is 6’5″. He’s skinny, and that’s harder to deal with at the 2–most of the shorter 2’s are strong guys, but also athletic, which LaVine is. LaVine can really knock down shots when he’s hot, but he doesn’t get hot often enough, and when he’s not hot he’s not a dependable open shot maker. His shot selection when playing point is questionable and that flaw would be at least as bad at the 2, although a good point could set him up.

    There’s a larger context than just LaVine here. We are only 5 games in, but it is becoming increasingly clear that we aren’t the sisters of the poor anymore, finally. We play to win. We have to now with this talent and after what fans have endured. With LaVine at point, we frankly can’t run an NBA offense. The cliff we fall off when Rubio hits the bench is likely to be there to some degree with any backup. Rubio is the anti-LaVine. He’s not athletic, but has bizarre natural aptitude for playing point guard. He passes like a dream, has a good handle, great defensive instincts, is super smart and tactical, takes care of the ball well, runs plays and demands players be in position etc. LaVine does none of this. In fact it is clear that the playbook is shrunk to almost nothing when he’s out there (still). His passing is not sharp, his decision making rarely average, and players are constantly out of position, confused, and not moving when LaVine is at point. Ball movement in general dies down when LaVine is at the 1. If we are serious about winning as much as possible (the goal of a sports team!) then we need to find a way to give some of the back up point minutes to non LaVine folks, such as Miller and Jones. If that means cutting LaVine’s total minutes, so be it. But he can play the 2 at times, both with a starting type line up and back ups. This could help keep LaVine’s minutes high–I expect him to play some point minutes in addition to playing 2. We can’t lose because we have a logjam of wings, or because we want to keep playing LaVine for unearned minutes at an unearned position in hope he’ll pan out someday. We can win now, and we need to do so.

  3. The improved defense (as seen in the Bulls game) and opportunity for others (LaVine, Wiggins) to get some work in at the shooting guard spot are the top two reasons I’m hoping we can find a way to move Kevin Martin.

  4. I can see a huge defensive improvement on The Vine… From “sucking” to “acceptable” (even, during some minutes the last games, astonishing “good enough”).
    I have no doubt he can keep improving to be, if not an elite defender, an over-average one. Not sure if he could have shown the same improvement if he would been playin’ as SG the minutes he’s been actually playin’ as…
    …let’s say No-PG.

    I don’t think The Vine is playin’ PG… he’s defending PGs and crossing field with the ball… but whatever he does beyond that point is not PG playin’ (not even in this era of I-do-everything-excepting-play-making-for-my-bruhs PGs).
    In my opinion, the master-plan is to share play-making duties between Zach and K-Mart, in a double SG, PG-less system for second unit.
    I think the idea is nice, but not Zach’s partner choice.. focus of play-making should be moved to Nemanja 3elly.

    Our beloved (Interim) Kinky SM, should give 3elly the responsability to be our Point Forward, with Zach helping him at PG duties, while TheOtherKevin plays SG catch&shoot oriented, off-the ball.

    That said, I loved your artice.

    I guess it generates a bit of controversial, the “Send Zach to SG, now, you idiot!” stuff… well, was growing too repetitive.

    • gjk says:

      Right. There has to be flexibility in the offense to let Bjelly (I like 3elly) do more with the ball than they’d let KG or Payne do. Or they could bring Towns back early in the 2nd and run the offense through him in the post.

      Since I don’t have much else to add, the most glaring thing about LaVine as PG is the turnovers that lead to easy transition points by the opponent. The point of having a PG at any level is they can dribble/pass well enough to avoid live-ball turnovers that lead to 1-on-0 or 2-on-0 fast breaks.

    • pyrrol says:

      The calls to play Zach at SG are repetitive because he almost never plays there. He’s clearly a rough specimen with some talent. He seems like a tweener guard. Why not play him at both positions to find out which one he can do? The lack of any attempt to even try him out at the 2 is what makes these requests not go away.

      The guy who is the shortest on the team on the court and who dribbles the ball up every time is 99.99% of the time the point guard. If he wants to be a good point guard, he’ll learn to do more than dribble the ball up and [attempt to] defend the opposing point guard. If you wonder what a point guard is supposed to do on an NBA team, watch Rubio. That’s point guard stuff.

  5. Refuge says:

    Any thoughts on Sam’s interview with Chad Hartman where he said Zach is a PG and is going to be a PG moving forward? Sam pretty much shot down the notion of Lavine ever being a 2 and said he’s going to be a PG. Does your opinion of the situation change knowing Sam fully intends to keep Lavine at the point?

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