NBA All-Star 2021: Why Bulls' Zach LaVine Deserves Spot on East Team

Why LaVine deserves All-Star nod in 2021 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Zach LaVine belongs in an All-Star game. Not many would argue with that point.

A scintillating scorer and explosive athlete with a flare for the dramatic, he checks every box to dazzle in the NBA’s grandest exhibition, which, even amid a pandemic, is still happening this season.

But being worthy or deserving of a bid and actually nabbing one of the East’s 12 spots are two different things. That’s something LaVine’ knows well.

With averages of 35.5 points 6.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists with 56.3/58/68.8 shooting splits in his last six games (in which the Bulls are 4-2), LaVine’s push to be selected is on. And on the year , he’s done enough to get in.

Here’s why:

His Counting Stats Pass the Sniff Test

On the day that the 2020 All-Star reserves were announced last season, LaVine basic averages sat at 25.1 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4 assists. His scoring efficiency was reasonable: 44 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from 3 on high volume. The Bulls sat 19-31.

So, while not being selected offered mild disappointment for LaVine and fans, it wasn’t a travesty. Besides, as I wrote last year, there were candidates more deserving.

But even in a career marked by continued improvement, LaVine’s leap this season has been revelatory. Long viewed by many as a high-volume, empty calorie scorer, he’s now married production with efficiency that can’t be cast aside.

LaVine is one of three players this season currently averaging at least 28 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists on 50-40-80 shooting splits. The other two: Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetkounmpo.

Embedded in that overall line are career-best splits from nearly every spot on the floor:

  • 0-3 feet --- 69.6%*
  • 3-10 feet --- 40.7%
  • 10-16 feet --- 45.5%*
  • 16-3P line --- 50.9%*
  • 3P --- 43.7%*

* career high

Don’t discount, either, LaVine’s playmaking improvements (he’s posting a career-best 24.7% percent assist rate), versatility (he's lethal on and off the ball) and, despite turnover trouble, growth reading kitchen-sink defensive schemes being hurled at him on a nightly basis. 

LaVine’s 13 30-point games ranks fourth in the NBA. He’s been prolific. His 14 consecutive 20-spots is tied for the league’s longest active streak. He’s been consistent. Of 16 players with a usage rate north of 30 percent, LaVine’s effective field goal percentage (61.2%) ranks second and his true shooting percentage (64.9%) fourth. He’s been efficient. All that adds up to him being one of the most exceptional offensive players going right now.

Team Context

LaVine’s offensive impact bears out in on/off splits; the Bulls score at a rate of 112.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor (which would rank 12th in the NBA) and 103.5 with him off (dead last). He’s the straw that stirs the drink for a unit finally climbing toward its potential (110.8 offensive rating, 18th) after bottom-three finishes in his first three Bulls seasons.

The defense is, of course, another story. The Bulls are a dizzying 16.9 points per 100 possessions worse with LaVine on the court than off on that end, which skews his individual net rating differential wildly to the negative (-3.3) and soils his reputation across a number of popular catch-all advanced metrics.

But no one who’s watched Bulls games can say LaVine’s effort and awareness on that end aren’t the best they’ve been in his career. And he’s been party to plenty of lineups that fare well. The root of his drastic plus/minus differential stems more from the context of who he routinely plays with; when Lauri Markkanen is healthy, the Bulls start four players between 19 and 23 years old, with LaVine the elder of the first line.
LaVine Two-Man Lineup Combinations

He’s not destructive on his own. But he is a bit susceptible to lineup context

Plus, with teammates in and out of the lineup all season, LaVine is carrying a weighty load for a Bulls team all of a sudden pushing for playoff positioning. LaVine currently leads the NBA in distance miles traveled per game (2.8) -- first on offense (1.55) and fourth on defense (1.25) -- and the difference between his usage rate (30.2%) and the next-highest on the team (Lauri Markkanen, 22.2% in 14 games) is among the starkest in the league. He’s played in every game, not a given in a COVID-19 season. 

How LaVine stacks up

The East’s five starters were announced Thursday evening, and they’re fairly unimpeachable: Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, Durant (captain), Antetkounmpo and Joel Embiid.

That leaves seven reserve spots for LaVine to vie for in a crowded field of deserving candidates; James Harden, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Ben Simmons, Trae Young, Khris Middleton, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Julius Randle, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Vučević, Jerami Grant and Gordon Hayward all spring to mind.

Coaches must select another two guards and three frontcourt players to fill out the first five of the bench, then two Wild Cards, which narrows the available spaces for LaVine to creep into down to four. Three if you assume Harden claims one of those reserve spots.

LaVine’s ludicrous offensive production and, funny enough, team success (with the game coming so early this year, the Bulls’ 12-15 record compares favorably or within a one-to-two-game vicinity of most everyone on this list) make him a strong contender. 

And, for what it’s worth, LaVine finished fourth among Eastern Conference guards in the weighted voting results that chose the starters. 

Such results aren’t a perfect predictor of reserve spots. But last season, two backcourt players were plucked as reserves by coaches in the East: Kyle Lowry (4th in weighted voting) and Ben Simmons (6th). The third and fifth-place finishers -- Irving (who had played less than 20 games when teams were finalized) and Derrick Rose -- were anomalies and easy exclusions. In the frontcourt, the fourth (Butler), fifth (Adebayo), sixth (Sabonis), seventh (Tatum) and ninth (Middleton) place finishers in weighted voting ended as reserves, with eighth-place Andre Drummond being excluded.

So, in conjunction with being deserving, LaVine has a solid shot practically as well. Should that final guard spot boil down to him or Young, LaVine has the scoring efficiency and team advantage (the Hawks have lost seven of their last nine), though Young’s playmaking and on/off impact are greater. While Simmons is on his way to another All-Defensive team and affecting true winning basketball, LaVine’s counting stats and offensive utility win out.

Better player, better building block, better playoff piece are all debates for another day. In the All-Star discussion, which often favors individual prolificity, LaVine's outstanding play this season warrants him earning his just due.

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