Bulls’ Zach LaVine focused on winning, not All-Star bid, with voting open

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Rob Schaefer
·4 min read
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LaVine focused on Bulls' record, not All-Star bid originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Zach LaVine understands it better than anyone: With team success, individual recognition follows.

That’s why, even as voting for 2021 NBA All-Star selections kicked off on Jan. 28, LaVine’s focus remains on the Bulls’ win-loss record, not social media hashtags or fan turnout.

“I feel like I’ve been playing at an All-Star level the last couple of years. I’m all about winning right now,” he said after a recent practice. “I think that (winning) would take care of everything. I would much rather be on a winning team and make it to the playoffs than any individual accolade. But once you start getting to that level, everything comes with it.”

LaVine did, of course, concede that earning the All-Star distinction would “mean a lot” to him, as he has in the past. In 2019-20, he missed the cut in a crowded field, averaging 25 points as the Bulls sported a 17-29 record when the 2020 teams were announced.

But this year, he’s taken even another jump forward. As of Sunday, LaVine is averaging a career-best 26.9 points per game on near 50-40-90 shooting splits (51.1-41.6-87.9), incredible efficiency given his high volume. In fact, LaVine and Joel Embiid are the only players in the NBA averaging more than 26 points on better than 65 percent true shooting (with Kevin Durant narrowly out of the frame at 64.8 percent true shooting); LaVine and Kyrie Irving are the only two topping 26 points per game on better than 60 percent effective field goal percentage.

Tack on career highs in rebounds (5.3) and assists per game (5.2), and -- turnover trouble aside -- LaVine’s numbers are easily worthy. But Billy Donovan, who this year became LaVine’s sixth NBA coach in seven seasons, knows statistics aren’t always the be-all, end-all.

“It's not gonna always be about numbers. I think sometimes you look at guys that maybe don't have the same numbers that Zach does but they're in the All-Star game and a lot of it is because their teams win and their teams win at a very, very high level,” Donovan said. “I think Zach, what would be important to him would be for our group and this team to win, and I think through winning comes individual recognition. I think Zach's certainly aware of that.”

He always has been, which makes results like Saturday night’s 123-122 defeat to the Trail Blazers all the more deflating. LaVine played the fourth quarter on a mission, scoring 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting (2-for-3 from 3), dishing 2 assists that failed to encapsulate the litany of sharp reads he made passing out of double-teams (many of which led to clean looks for teammates later in possessions) and hitting a pull-up, dagger 3 to put the Bulls ahead five with 32.1 seconds to play.

What burns is the turnover LaVine committed -- he’s now coughed up at least 6 in three straight games -- after Gary Trent Jr. tied him up and drew a jump ball call with 6.2 seconds to play and the Bulls ahead 122-120. Damian Lillard had just canned a 37-foot 3-pointer to pull Portland within two. He stroked another at the buzzer off a loose ball scramble to squander the Bulls’ 19-point second-half comeback.

LaVine and Donovan opined a quick whistle on the jump ball call after the game. But it doesn’t change the reality.

It hurts being on the side of a loss like that,” said LaVine, “Where you think you have the game wrapped up and you fought back and put yourself in position to win.”

The Bulls have had a few of those this year. They now sit 7-11, their best record through 18 games since the start of the rebuild, but only one game better than their 6-12 mark through 18 games in 2019-20.

Does that make LaVine a losing player? His numbers empty calories? Even in a short time knowing him, Donovan doesn’t think so.

“Since I've been with him (LaVine) I don't think he's ever played the game for numbers or points,” Donovan said. “I think he's trying to play to win and do the right things and find ways to impact our group.”

LaVine’s facilitating in the fourth quarter of the Portland game exhibits that, even as the turnovers remind that there remains room to grow. Still, there remain others to convince.

That’s why -- for his sake, and, more importantly, the Bulls’ -- it’s on to the next after the latest in a line of crushing defeats. LaVine's mind was on the Eastern Conference standings, not his stat sheet, after the Trail Blazers loss.

“Try to look at things you can control and what you can’t control,” LaVine said. “We’ve got another game coming up and I think we’re in like 10th place right now (fact check: 11th)...  It’s a really close race and we have to start getting some of these wins."

RELATED: Bulls must prove bounceback mentality after latest late-game loss

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