Zach LaVine should be an All-Star

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NBC Sports

Zach LaVine should be an All-Star

Zach LaVine should be an All-Star. There, I said it.

Whew, it feels good to get this off my chest. Yes, I think LaVine really deserves to be an All-Star. Yes, the 24-year-old isn’t a popular pick among national folks, and, with the All-Star Game in the Windy City, picking the hometown guy does feel a bit like pandering.

I also fully recognize that my employer, NBC Sports, broadcasts LaVine’s team, so me stumping for him might seem like I’m trying to make my bosses extra happy (which, yes, I have two kids under the age of 4 and have you seen college tuition trends?).

But hear me out. LaVine is everything the All-Star Game should be about. He’s really, really good and really, really fun. He’s averaging 25.1 points per game this season, which feels high enough to be an automatic qualifier on its own. The last Eastern Conference player to average 25 points per game over a full season and NOT make the All-Star team is Michael Redd in 2006-07, but that’s because a knee injury knocked him out for 20 games before the break. LaVine, on the other hand, has played every single game this season.

This isn’t just about plain ol’ points per game. LaVine harnesses his trampoline-like jumping ability to do two things exceedingly well: He dunks and hits 3s. He plays like he’s in a real-life version of NBA Jam, which, if you think about it, foreshadowed today’s All-Star Game like a quarter century ago. Turns out, people love to watch players dunk and shoot from very far away. 

In this sense, the All-Star Game is basically the Zach LaVine Invitational. This season, LaVine is sixth in 3-pointers and first among guards in dunks (second if you count the 6-foot-10 Ben Simmons as a guard). 

It’s almost impossible to find someone who does both of those things. Case in point: LaVine has more dunks this season (69) than the five players ahead of him on the 3-pointer leaderboard combined (James Harden, Buddy Hield, Damian Lillard, Devonte’ Graham and Duncan Robinson have 41). Said another way, of the 25 players with the most dunks, LaVine and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the only players with more than 50 3-pointers. Antetokounmpo has 69 and LaVine has one-hundred-and-fifty-three.

Look, if you aren’t in love with the All-Star-Game-as-NBA-Jam idea, you probably tuned out years ago. I can’t help you there. But there’s no denying that LaVine’s game is made from All-Star concentrate. It’s also why I have no problem with Trae Young starting. He’s super fun.

And I get it, the Bulls aren’t very good. And typically, with coaches deciding the seven reserves for each team, the All-Star bench squad is mostly a carrot to reward great players on winning teams.

But can we lighten up a bit here? This is the All-Star Game, not the Nobel Peace Prize. I find it a little silly that we, in the media (guilty as charged), often spend so much time nit-picking a player’s statistical profile this time of year as if All-Star is some sacred medal of honor when it’s only for a half-season of play. Also, isn’t that why we have All-NBA team? 

We already bury ourselves in the film and the numbers when selecting the 15 very-best players in the league at season’s end. We don’t need to do it for a half-season exhibition where players bounce alley-oops to each other.

So, yes, in the spirit of the deep-3s-and-dunks All-Star Game, LaVine should be in the game. But he also has been pretty darn good. 

On a team that has been wrecked by injuries (again, the Bulls’ promising four-man core has played all of nine games together since last season’s trade deadline), LaVine hasn’t missed a single game this season and ranks third in the NBA in field goals, sixth in 3-pointers, 11th in steals and 12th in free throws. His shot selection has been much healthier this season, shooting 38.0 percent on 8.1 3-point attempts per game and trimming his mid-range diet significantly. These are good things because LaVine shoots worse on long 2s than 3s and, you know, three is more than two.

If you want to beat LaVine up for being bad on defense, this is absolutely not the season to do it. The Bulls are seventh in defensive efficiency. Seventh! And LaVine has played by far the most minutes on the team. 

I’m not saying LaVine should be challenging Rudy Gobert for Defensive Player of the Year, but LaVine is much improved on that end compared to last season. LaVine’s block and steal rates are both at career-high levels, but his foul rate stayed steady. He’s much more in-tune off the ball and his advanced numbers have improved. In fact, according to NBA.com tracking, LaVine’s pick-and-roll defense (guarding the ball-handler) has been the second-most effective in the NBA behind Jayson Tatum on a per-possession basis (minimum 100 plays). It all points to this: the Bulls have been really good defensively this season and LaVine is almost always in the picture.

Unfortunately, bad defensive reputations are sticky in this league. It’s true, LaVine’s on-off splits on the defensive end are gory. The Bulls allow 108.6 points per 100 possessions when LaVine is on the floor and a tidy 97.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s off the floor, per NBA.com. Not good. 

But look closer. The Bulls’ most-used lineup, which includes Kris Dunn, LaVine, Tomas Satoransky, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., has a defensive rating of … get ready for it ... 97.1, which would rank first in the NBA over a full season. If LaVine was really so hurtful defensively, that wouldn’t happen -- not even close. Mostly, LaVine’s ugly on-off splits boils down to playing so much with Coby White, who is super fun but also super teenaged and often overwhelmed defensively in his first year in the league.

What this comes down to is that LaVine is being blamed for the Bulls’ underperforming season at 19-31, which isn’t really fair. No one outside of LaVine can create their own shot, or I should say, create their own shot efficiently. Markkanen used to be that guy, but he’s been in a funk all season, and a stress reaction in his hip, which will sideline him for the next month or so, won’t help matters. LaVine has scored 104 points in clutch situations, which is second-most in the NBA behind Chris Paul and more than the next four Bulls players combined, per NBA.com

All-Star ballots, of course, are a zero-sum game. So, if LaVine is in, who’s out? I’ve seen LaVine in the same tier as Bradley Beal, Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kyle Lowry. At a certain point, it’s a matter of taste. Of those players, LaVine would be by far the most electric player in an All-Star Game and he’s also been easily the most available, playing nearly 300 additional minutes than the next-highest player in minutes of that crew (Tatum).

For me, LaVine should be in the All-Star game over Middleton, which, poor timing on my part after Middleton dropped 51 on the Wiz. Has Middleton been better per-minute than LaVine? Probably. But he’s played nine fewer games and another 500 fewer minutes. Also, if LaVine had the defensive wall behind him that is the Milwaukee Bucks’ defense, you’re telling me he wouldn’t be voted in the All-Star game this year? You know the answer. I get the nagging feeling that a team on a 70-win pace should have more than one All-Star, but All-NBA feels more appropriate for that kind of rubric.

LaVine has been fantastic this season and he’s also tailor-made for the midseason exhibition. Yes, the Bulls should be better, but that’s not on LaVine. In a season where the East backcourt reserve candidate list has been battered by injury, LaVine should get the nod. 

I don’t have a ballot this year, but here’s my reserve list for posterity’s sake.

East
G: Zach LaVine
G: Ben Simmons
FC: Bam Adebayo
FC: Jimmy Butler
FC: Domantas Sabonis
WC: Jayson Tatum
WC: Bradley Beal

West
G: Damian Lillard
G: Donovan Mitchell
FC: Rudy Gobert
FC: Nikola Jokic
FC: Brandon Ingram
WC: Devin Booker
WC: Chris Paul

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

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NBC Sports

Will the NBA bubble be safe for players?

The NBA recently released a 113-page health and safety protocol for the 22-team NBA restart.

Will it be enough to keep the players safe in the NBA bubble?

“There are millions and millions of people and thousands of activities that are far riskier than what the NBA is trying to attempt here,” said Nate Duncan on The Habershow podcast with NBC Sports national NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh.

Duncan, the host of a popular NBA (Dunc’d On Basketball) and COVID (Covid Daily News) podcast, does not anticipate a large spike in positive COVID-19 tests among NBA players.  

“Once we actually get into the bubble, between that point and the end of the season, I think fewer than 16 players will test positive,” Duncan said.

LISTEN TO THE HABERSHOW HERE

Here are the timestamps for Haberstroh’s interview with Duncan:

8:10  The NBA's rules for the bubble

17:20  Why Disney staffers don't necessarily need to be tested daily

32:10  The biggest threat to the bubble

42:30 Why the NBA could be in big trouble for next season

46:50  Whether the NBA should finish this season or not

For more from Haberstroh, listen to his conversation with TrueHoops’s Henry Abbott on life inside the NBA bubble

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

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NBC Sports

Zion Williamson, Pelicans enter NBA restart as most compelling team

With the NBA heading to Orlando next week, there is no shortage of storylines to follow in the leadup to the league’s late-July restart. Everyone will be closely monitoring the coronavirus front. Go ahead and brace yourself for silly asterisk talk. Keep an eye on the lack of home-court advantage. The mental health aspect of spending months in a bubble will be a challenge but maybe also an opportunity

But in my mind, no storyline is more fascinating than the immediate future of the New Orleans Pelicans. Between New Orleans’ explosive young roster, led by teenage phenom Zion Williamson, potential coronavirus complications on the floor and the bench, and a run at the No. 8 seed out West, no team embodies the full spectrum of conflicting emotions heading into the NBA bubble quite like the Pelicans. 

By all indications, all systems remain a go for Williamson. The plan is for him to continue progressing toward playing in Orlando, but, like the rest of the league, the Pelicans are not yet authorized for five-on-five work with their players. How Zion or any other player’s body responds to four months without organized basketball is anyone’s guess. 

Let’s assume Williamson does make the trip. That in itself is great news for the Pelicans, for fans, and, most notably, TV partners. 

It’s not a surprise the league put Williamson and the Pelicans front and center in a 6:30 p.m. ET tip-off against the Utah Jazz on ESPN to kick off the restart. New Orleans was booked for a franchise-record 30 national TV appearances in Williamson’s rookie season -- with good reason. According to ESPN tracking, national TV ratings were 30 percent higher for Williamson’s national TV games than the average nationally televised game. 

Zion-related ticket sales saw a similar boost. In road games that Williamson played, attendance in those visiting arenas soared to 19,022 fans on average, a towering figure that would have ranked No. 1 in road attendance for any team. By comparison, Anthony Davis and the 2018-19 Pelicans ranked just 19th in road attendance.

It’s worth noting that part of the surge in excitement was due to Williamson missing the first three-plus months of the season with a knee injury. However, once Williamson took the court in late January, he more than lived up to the hype. The 19-year-old was a marvel on the boards and showed far better playmaking skills than many expected. No teenager has ever posted a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) north of 22.0 in the NBA. Not LeBron, not Luka, not Kobe, not AD. 

Zion, entering Orlando play, is at 24.2. This is rarified air among rarified air. 

Now, it’s true that plenty of stud rookies put up monster numbers without corresponding team success (Kyrie Irving’s rookie season comes to mind). And yes, the Pelicans haven’t exactly lit the world on fire this season, but they’re 10-9 in games that Zion plays and 18-27 in games that he doesn’t. If you drill down even further, a superstar-level impact -- not just box score stats -- begins to emerge.

In the 565 minutes that Williamson played this season, the Pelicans have outscored opponents by 120 points, which works out to plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions. For any player, that’s an incredible figure. Among All-Stars, only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Kawhi Leonard have higher on-court ratings. For a teenager, that’s obscene.

Worse yet for the league is the fact that the Pelicans are in prime position to maximize Williamson’s talents both now and in the future. Veterans Jrue Holiday, Derrick Favors and JJ Redick helped boost Williamson’s on-court numbers this year, while Lonzo Ball and All-Star forward Brandon Ingram, both just 22 years old, feature complementary skill sets to Williamson.

Knowing what kind of once-in-a-generation talent they had on their hands, the Pelicans didn’t want to overdo it with his minutes early on. But in time Williamson regularly played between 30 and 35 minutes and produced like a top-15 player in the league in those minutes.

It remains to be seen how the Pelicans plan to manage Williamson’s workload in the seeding games. Given his injury history, the long layoff and his immense size, Williamson’s availability will be one of the most fascinating storylines of the restart.

But one has to always wonder if his head coach, Alvin Gentry, will be managing those minutes at all. CDC guidelines state that individuals who are 65 years old or older are high risk for serious illness due to COVID-19. Gentry, who is 65, remains steadfast in his intentions to be in Orlando with his team at full capacity, telling The Athletic on Tuesday: “I plan on coaching without any restrictions. We’ll see if the league comes up with a different plan.” 

The coaching situation around the league remains fluid, sources say. While the National Basketball Players Association and National Basketball Referees Association have both announced ratified agreements on a return-to-play, the coaches’ union has not publicized a similar pact. Gentry’s top assistant coach and defensive guru Jeff Bzdelik, 67, may also be in occupational limbo due his age. According to Dallas Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle, the NBA has told coaches that age alone won’t be sufficient enough of a reason to keep them from going to Orlando. Coaches, along with all staffers, will have their medical records screened by a panel of independent physicians to determine their risk levels.

To give it their best shot at the playoffs, the Pelicans will need all hands on deck. Beyond Williamson and the coaching situation, perhaps the most intriguing part of the Pelicans’ restart is their playoff situation. The Pelicans are currently 3.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 8 spot, tied with the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings in the standings. Historically, a gap that wide is just about insurmountable.

But the Pelicans have been gifted a unique opportunity to punch their ticket into the postseason. New Orleans can earn a play-in series if they finish as the No. 9 seed and are within four games of the No. 8 seed. Heck, the Pelicans could supplant the Grizzlies in the eighth slot altogether.

Using win-loss records from the 2019-20 season, the Pelicans have the easiest strength of schedule of all the 22 Orlando-bound teams, with an average opponent win percentage of .495.  

They could fumble out the gate, but it will get easier. After two tough games against the Jazz and Clippers, the final six games on the Pelicans’ schedule will be against teams with losing records: Memphis, Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento (again) and Orlando. Even better for Pelicans’ chances, their strength of schedule pales in comparison to Memphis (.603), Portland (.601), San Antonio (.567) and to a lesser extent, Sacramento (.530). 

The path is there. If the Pelicans go 7-1 in the seeding games and the Grizzlies sputter with a 3-5 record or worse, the Pelicans would earn the No. 8 seed (barring a similarly dominant run by Portland, San Antonio or Sacramento).

At first glance, this appears to be an inside job by the NBA to get Williamson into the playoffs, but that’s not what’s happening here. With a brutal front-loaded schedule back in November and December, the Pelicans were supposed to have the easiest remaining strength of schedule down the stretch. The soft slate in Orlando actually maintains the integrity of the team’s original 82-game itinerary.

A lot can change between now and the Pelicans’ July 30 game. Medical staffs around the league remain worried about how players’ bodies will adjust to the new normal and a short ramp-up time. Four months without organized five-on-five basketball is unheard of in these players’ careers. 

And then there are the virus concerns. Three unnamed Pelicans players tested positive with coronavirus this week and there’s no telling how that might impact their health on or off the court. On Wednesday, Brooklyn Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie tweeted that he’s still feeling ill nearly a week after his initial positive test. The self-isolation programs may be completely prudent from an infectious-disease perspective, but it’s undeniably troublesome for a player’s conditioning and readiness to play. It’s unclear at this point if the Pelicans players who tested positive are symptomatic or expected to play without restriction in Orlando.

Raising more questions for New Orleans is the free agency side of things. Favors will be an unrestricted free agency this summ-- uh, fall and will be looking to cash in after a strong age-29 season. Meanwhile, Ingram will be a restricted free agent hoping for a big pay day from New Orleans or elsewhere. If either of those players feel significantly less than 100 percent in Orlando, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them sit out to preserve their long-term health and earning potential.

You can say what you want about LeBron James’ Lakers, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks and the rest of the contenders (don’t sleep on Houston or Philly, by the way). But in my book, no team is more compelling over the next month than the Pelicans. If Williamson is playing his full minutes and they’re able to send their complete coaching staff, I’m picking the Pelicans to make the playoffs and face none other than the Lakers in the first round. After the Davis trade a year ago, wouldn’t that be fun? Come to think of it, that matchup might be the most intriguing aspect of it all.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.