There was nothing subtle about Bulls coach Billy Donovan’s All-Star Game endorsement.
The way he sees it, few players have played better than guard Zach LaVine or done more for their team.
“I would say he has impacted our team incredibly well,’’ Donovan said Saturday after the Bulls beat Kings. “I think when you look at players that are All-Stars, you are saying they are playing at a high level individually and they are also raising the level of the team. I think Zach has done that.
“I would be hard-pressed to believe there’s guys out there — and I’m not saying who is deserving and who is not deserving — but Zach LaVine is deserving of being an All-Star.’’
Fan, media and player voting for the starters from the Eastern Conference said otherwise.
The coaches, however, determine the reserves, and Donovan was directing his campaign at them. That campaign has picked up steam not just because of LaVine’s numbers, but because of where the Bulls are in the standings.
At 13-16, the Bulls held the ninth spot in the East entering Sunday, which would give them at least a play-in game. And LaVine’s numbers are on a historic pace. Through 29 games, he’s averaging 28.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists while shooting 51.8% from the field, 42.9% from three-point range and 86.2% from the free-throw line.
In NBA history, only Steph Curry and Larry Bird (three times) have averaged at least 28 points, five rebounds and five assists while shooting at least 50%, 40% and 80%, respectively.
But the real selling point for Donovan is LaVine’s effort on defense after six-plus seasons in the league. LaVine always has claimed he has wanted to be a two-way player, but it wasn’t until this past month that he showed he can be a capable defender.
His defensive numbers have improved since the first six weeks of the season, but the eye test shows just how committed LaVine has become throughout a possession.
So why now? It’s very unlikely that Donovan is the first coach LaVine has had who has demanded more from him on defense.
LaVine said that the losing he has endured in the NBA has reached an embarrassing level, necessitating a change. Of his 382 games, LaVine has won 30.9%.
“You get to a point where you’re tired of losing,’’ LaVine said. “And you have to figure out you can’t just blame other people.’’
He hopes that showing the league a two-way mentality will reward him Tuesday, when the All-Star reserves are announced.
It would be huge for LaVine to play on that stage because of the doors that would open. When the league’s elite get together, the recruiting talk heats up. If LaVine wants to stay in Chicago long term, he knows he’s going to need some serious help to join him.
The other aspect of an All-Star appearance is how his organization views him. LaVine is making just under $20 million this year and next. He’s in line for a big raise.
How big? The front office will have to determine that. LaVine has his own thoughts on whether his newfound defensive mindset has him outplaying his current deal.
“I try to let my game speak for itself,’’ LaVine said. “I think contract negotiations will come up, and we’ll see where stuff may lay. I let you guys assess that and put the numbers behind it on the things I’ve done versus my contract and other players. I think I’ve done well for myself, though.’’