Bulls

Assessing Zach LaVine's All-Star chances in crowded East reserve field

Assessing Zach LaVine's All-Star chances in crowded East reserve field

NBA All-Star voting begins Christmas Day, with starters to be announced on TNT on Jan. 23 and the network revealing coaches’ picks for reserves a week later.

In other words, Zach LaVine’s candidacy for the Feb. 16 All-Star game is about to shift into overdrive.

Ever since the NBA tabbed Chicago to host its first All-Star game since 1988, the local drumbeat for Bulls’ participation in the big-boy game began. Sure, everybody wants to see LaVine commit to the dunk contest as part of Saturday night’s extravaganza.

But the Bulls haven’t had an All-Star since trading away Jimmy Butler in June 2017 after the third of his three straight appearances. So what are LaVine’s chances?

After a slow start for both his own game and team success, LaVine is putting up All-Star numbers of late. In December, he’s averaging 26.1 points while becoming more adept at decision-making and closing situations.

Overall, he’s averaging 23.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists and shooting a career-best 39.5 percent on 3-pointers.

"I expect myself to play that way," LaVine said. "It should be this way. Obviously last year I got off to a really hot start with all those (30-point) games. I feel like I've been more efficient, at least in this stretch. I'm just reading the game. Obviously, you have good and bad games. But the way you can affect the game I feel I've done a good job of that."

Will it be enough?

One wild card will be to see if Kyrie Irving repeats as a starter. He hasn’t played for the Nets since Nov. 14 after injuring his shoulder. Fan voting, for which Irving likely will fare well, accounts for 50 percent of the starters’ nods, with 25 percent each determined by player and media voting.

If Irving is voted a starter and can’t play in the game, that would open up another reserve spot. A reserve would slide into Irving’s slot and Commissioner Adam Silver would name an injury replacement for Irving.

Coaches vote for two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild card players for their reserve selections.

Kemba Walker joined Irving as a starter last season and, with averages 22.6 points, 5.4 assists and 4.1 rebounds, is a lock to be a repeat selection either as starter or reserve after leaving the Hornets for the Celtics.

Here are other locks: Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, 76ers center Joel Embiid and Heat forward Butler. If 76ers guard Ben Simmons, Raptors forward Pascal Siakam and Wizards guard Bradley Beal aren’t locks, they’re close to it.

There is typically momentum for previous All-Star selections, and while Beal plays for the 9-20 Wizards, the two-time All-Star’s monster numbers of 28.3 points and 6.8 assists are even more impressive when it’s considered how much defensive attention he draws.

One of Butler or Siakam likely will slide into the starting spot created when Kawhi Leonard left the Raptors to join the Clippers in the Eastern Conference.

One reserve from last season — Pacers guard Victor Oladipo — definitely won’t make it because he hasn’t played due to injury. Two others, Magic center Nikola Vucevic and Raptors guard Kyle Lowry, have played well but also missed significant time to injuries. And a last one, Blake Griffin, has been injured and ordinary.

That leaves LaVine in a crowded field of potential reserves that includes Hawks guard Trae Young; Heat center Bam Adebayo; Bucks forward Khris Middleton; Celtics forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown; Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis; Pacers guard Malcolm Brogdon; Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie; Pistons center Andre Drummond; and Raptors guards Lowry and Fred VanVleet.

Here is where it’s important for the Bulls to build on their recent success, even as their schedule toughens. Coaches typically reward winning teams with their reserve selections, which obviously would benefit all of the above except for Young, Dinwiddie and Drummond. And Dinwiddie’s advanced statistics are currently better than LaVine’s.

Hypothetically, let’s assume the East starters are Simmons, Walker, Antetokounmpo, Butler and Embiid. That leaves lock or near-lock reserves of Siakam and Beal. It’s almost certain the Bucks’ and Celtics’ winning will warrant a second All-Star. So add Middleton and Tatum.

Hypothetically, that leaves three spots to fight for from LaVine, Young, Brown, Sabonis, Brogdon, Dinwiddie, Lowry, VanVleet, Drummond and Adebayo.

LaVine is doing his part to make his first All-Star game. But he has plenty of competition.

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Discussing the NBA's reported restart plan

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Discussing the NBA's reported restart plan

Laurence Holmes, Anthony Herron and David Haugh join Kap on the panel.

0:00 - The guys discuss the state of our country and Vic Fangio’s apology after saying he did not see racism in the NFL. Also, they talk about Drew Brees’ criticisms of Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the anthem and how he will “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America.”

13:00- The NBA is coming back. The guys discuss the 22-team restart plan which ends the Bulls’ season.

19:00- The Bears continue OTAs via Zoom. What do we want to hear from Mitch and Nick on Thursday?

Listen here or below.

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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With Bulls out of NBA’s return plan, focus shifts to unprecedented offseason

With Bulls out of NBA’s return plan, focus shifts to unprecedented offseason

The Bulls began the 2019-20 season with such promise, even talking playoffs.

They will end it with such peculiarity, now talking pandemic.

Pending expected ownership approval in a Thursday morning Board of Governors call, NBA commissioner Adam Silver will announce a 22-team return-to-play format that doesn’t feature the Bulls, according to sources.

What a wild eight months it has been.

Back at last September’s media day, John Paxson, Gar Forman and Jim Boylen talked optimistically about making progress in Season 3 of the full rebuild undertaken when the Bulls traded Jimmy Butler in June 2017. Instead, an underwhelming campaign led Paxson to tell ownership last December that it needed to modernize the front office.

Now, Arturas Karnisovas has replaced Paxson, who remains a senior advisor, and Marc Eversley has replaced Forman, who was fired. And with the season expected to end officially on Thursday, Boylen’s future hangs in the balance. A source said there is no imminent announcement regarding Boylen’s status.

When Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on March 11 and Silver became the first major sports commissioner to push their league into an indefinite hiatus, the Bulls were riding a wave of optimism. Coby White had just started his first NBA game, scoring 20 points to continue his strong play in a home victory over the Cavaliers.

But that victory nudged the team to merely 22-43, one fewer game than the last time they played a shortened season thanks to a lockout in 2011-12. And that season, under Tom Thibodeau, they led the NBA with a 50-16 mark.

Though Boylen owns support from ownership and Paxson, his future will be Karnisovas’ call. The former Nuggets executive said he was hired to “affect change.” Eversley said the new regime’s mission is to make the Bulls a “player-first organization.”

Much of the player feedback the duo received about Boylen during the hiatus raises questions about his long-term fit. However, Karnisovas is known as a deliberate, thoughtful decision-maker who has worked to empower Boylen for now.

For instance, in a sign of Karnisovas’ leadership style, he has communicated to Boylen to focus strictly on coaching and working with his staff and players, sources said. Too often last season, Boylen got wrapped up in dealing with player agents or honoring commitments on the business operations side, which sidetracked his focus.

Karnisovas has communicated to the coaching staff that he and Eversley will put out the near-daily fires that typically arise over the course of a season. None of this, obvoiusly, precludes management from moving on from Boylen before the start of the 2020-21 season if it reaches that conclusion. But it gives a window into its operating procedure for now.

At his introductory news conference via conference call, Karnisovas set his goals clearly.

“A firm foundation is absolutely vital, I'll build that here in Chicago. No skipping steps. There is a systematic approach to success that will be the product of focus and intention, hard work and diligence. We will strive for constant improvement,” he said. “Chicago is a great sports town with a long, robust sports history. The city is made up of very passionate fans. Earning the enthusiasm and excitement back from the fans is both a challenge and something I very much look forward to. These fans deserve a team that they can be proud of, and my objective is to get us back to relevancy.”

Since being hired, Karnisovas and Eversley have held substantive conversations with players, evaluated all departments and begun the draft process. They added Pat Connelly as vice president of player personnel and J.J. Polk as assistant general manager.

However, Karnisovas has also utilized holdover front-office personnel like associate general manager Brian Hagen, assistant general manager Steve Weinman, director of pro personnel Jim Paxson and others, for now. Karnisovas has addressed situations he felt needed immediate change — the dismissal of Forman is an example — but is allowing the evaluation process to play out for other decisions.

With Otto Porter Jr. widely expected to exercise his $28.5 million player option and the pandemic likely impacting future salary caps, the new management regime may be initially limited to what they can do roster-wise. They face decisions on restricted free agents Kris Dunn and Denzel Valentine.

And they’ve expressed confidence in some of the core pieces like Coby White and Wendell Carter Jr., while vowing to explore the reasons behind Lauri Markkanen’s regression.

It won’t help the Bulls and their status as one of the league’s youngest teams to go over nine months between regular season games. Even with momentum for a voluntary September minicamp for the teams not still playing in Orlando, it’s an unprecedented situation and alters a typical evaluation period for Karnisovas and Eversley.

For what it’s worth, Zach LaVine led the 2019-20 Bulls in scoring at 25.5 points per game. Carter finished as the top rebounder, averaging 9.4 per game. And Tomas Satoransky’s 5.4 assists per game led that category.

But the only number that matters is 22 victories, a full eight fewer than the eighth-seeded Magic when the league shut down. That number left the Bulls on the outside looking in, with plenty of work to do for 2020-21.

RELATED: Explaining the NBA's return plan, which won't include Bulls

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