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.
G: Zach LaVine
G: Ben Simmons
FC: Bam Adebayo
FC: Jimmy Butler
FC: Domantas Sabonis
WC: Jayson Tatum
WC: Bradley Beal
G: Damian Lillard
G: Donovan Mitchell
FC: Rudy Gobert
FC: Nikola Jokic
FC: Brandon Ingram
WC: Devin Booker
WC: Chris Paul