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First-time All-Star Zach LaVine is transcending his reputation

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When Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine made the NBA All-Star Game, I braced for fashionable grandstanding.

Some players toggle the line between potential and disappointment so closely and consistently that fans get frustrated and turn on them. They become an archetype — no defense, good stats on a bad team, high-flight athletes — and LaVine has long been the face.

Snubs, on the other hand, are treated like the crumbling pillars of unselfish basketball. The game-tape guys to your “SportsCenter” guys. Your Khris Middletons of the world. They must be protected at all costs. When they miss the game, it is yet another mark on their ledger of self-sacrifice.

Sports arguments rest on overblown contrasts. So I waited.

But … crickets.

LaVine didn’t just make the All-Star Game. He is transcending his reputation.

The coaches — supposed gatekeepers of the game’s sanctity over fans who fancy high-flyers — voted in LaVine, whose earlier dabbles with All-Star weekend have been in the dunk contest. The coaches aren't always right (Nikola Vucevic over Bam Adebayo, anyone?), but it was just another sign of the nature of LaVine's progression.

 Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls controls the ball against the Orlando Magic at Amway Center on February 6, 2021 in Orlando, Florida.
Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine made the All-Star team on Tuesday. (Alex Menendez/Getty Images)

He’s slamming it down less than ever, according to StatHead. But he is shooting with blistering efficiency that has forced defenses to zero in on him, greasing the wheels for the rest of the offense. You won’t see it in his assist totals, but LaVine is the engine and gas for the Bulls’ young, rickety offense.

LaVine rightfully frustrated fans nightly with defensive miscues and midrange reliance, but the mistakes were leading to minuscule changes that have finally accumulated into something big. He worked through these kinks despite tearing his ACL and playing for six coaches on two teams.

The All-Star Game makes me think about reward systems: What are we propping up here? LaVine’s selection is not a testament to highlight reels, but to incremental improvement.

You can see it in the counting stats.

Zach LaVine.
Zach LaVine.

If you’re a visual learner, here are his shot charts over the last three years.

FGA for Zach LaVine
FGA for Zach LaVine
FGA for LaVine
FGA for LaVine
FGA LaVine 20-21
FGA LaVine 20-21

If you prefer the eye-test, here’s a great cut-up from basketball writer Jackson Frank.

The biggest argument against LaVine is his own teammate, Thaddeus Young.

Young leads the team in net rating, while LaVine operates in the negative. Plus-minus numbers have dogged LaVine his entire career. Peel beneath the surface, the logic goes, and you find a shoot-first player who doesn’t contribute to winning; that Young’s playmaking development is propping up LaVine’s All-Star case. Confirmation bias plays a role here. When a player like LaVine starts succeeding, we assume the cause of the success lies elsewhere.

The reality is the opposite: The duo is essentially a poor man’s Draymond Green and Stephen Curry. Draymond is an incredible release valve, but Curry is the bursting pipe. Don’t email me about this analogy. You know what I mean.

LaVine created the space for Young to hone his playmaking chops throughout the season, a testament to late improvement (side note: I wonder what Young’s career would have looked like had he had the Draymond Green blueprint to follow all along).

The reputation that score-first players like LaVine accrue over time has a lot to do with how we view offense versus how we view defense. Offense is considered a matter of preternatural talent and skill while defense is a measure of hustle and will. There are partial truths here, but partial truths are dangerous: They make for the best lies.

Just like some players are gifted with touch and timing on offense, some have the information-processing system and reaction time to anticipate on defense. LaVine doesn’t lack hustle, but he does space out and make mistakes. He’s learning despite his intuition, just like a defensive guard like Jrue Holiday that extended his range. Both take a great deal of skill work and discomfort. On offense, LaVine hasn’t rested on his laurels either, his shot form inching closer to 90 degrees every season.

If you believe a player who has progressed shouldn’t be getting in over one who has arrived, like Middleton or Adebayo, I won’t be mad at you.

But as for me, I don’t want no snub. A snub is a guy that can’t get no love from me — at least not at the expense of a deserving All-Star.

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