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Zach LaVine, Julius Randle and the unconventional franchise player

The Bulls and Knicks face off Thursday with the centerpieces of their roster arriving to stardom in unique ways.

New York Knicks v Chicago Bulls
Zach LaVine of the Chicago Bulls drives around Julius Randle of the New York Knicks during the first half of a game at United Center on February 03, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks meet Thursday as two large market teams finally starting to perform to the expectations of two massive fanbases. Both teams are looking like playoff contenders in a competitive Eastern Conference after years of irrelevance, and it’s due to two roster centerpieces who arrived at their current position in unconventional ways.

Stars typically arrive to organizations in two ways; the draft or free agency. Occasionally a star player gets traded to an organization when he wants out of his current situation, but that’s really out of the player’s hands. Even the draft is largely up to teams, but players can leverage their way to certain places. Kobe Bryant is one of the more prominent examples of this phenomenon.

For the Bulls and Knicks, the free agency option has been surprisingly barren. For two teams in big markets with strong tradition, the lack of stars arriving in free agency is concerning. Even Chicago’s additions this season technically came by sign-and-trade deals, while the Knicks once again seemed to overpay for second-rate talent. The draft has been good for both teams, but it has yet to unearth a star. Maybe RJ Barrett will eventually get there for New York.

When Randle signed as a free agent with the Knicks, it appeared to be a typical overpay of a franchise unable to deliver a marquee attraction in the league’s marquee arena in the sport’s biggest market. The power forward landed a three-year, $63 million deal which turned out to be a bargain. He averaged 21.9 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists per game over the first two seasons while shooting 45.8 percent from the floor and 36.1 percent from deep. More importantly, the Knicks saw their win total go from 17 to 21 to 41 and got to the playoffs in that final season. New York gave Randle a four-year extension worth $117 million to prevent the forward from hitting free agency. He has been the team’s leading scorer and rebounder since he signed, including this current season.

LaVine’s rise to stardom is truly unprecedented. He was considered somewhat of an afterthought when he arrived in Chicago as part of the Jimmy Butler trade, with rookie Lauri Markkanen being the main attraction. Many around the league saw LaVine as a high-flying athlete with spectacular dunks but not much else. After having an inefficient 24 games in his first season, LaVine averaged 25.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while posting 47-39-82 shooting splits.

With Markkanen out, he’s become the replacement player for Butler. The Bulls didn’t have the roster to support him until this season, which is showing in the standings. LaVine is due for a big extension in free agency, and the Bulls had to show him they were committed to winning this year to get him to stay. Although frankly, if he didn’t leave through three seasons with less than 30 wins he was likely always going to stick around.

The Bulls enter Thursday’s game at +1600 to win the East, good for fifth in the conference according to DraftKings Sportsbook. The Knicks are slightly lower at +3500 but only 2.5 games separate the teams in the standings. They may not be the headline-grabbing names NBA fans associate with stardom and some may still feel they aren’t stars, but LaVine and Randle have become the centerpieces of their respective contending teams over time. Not many saw it coming and it happened in a bizarre way but it’s safe to say both franchises are happy with the way it turned out.