LAS VEGAS – Amid a critical offseason for the direction of the franchise, the Chicago Bulls and Zach LaVine find themselves at something of an crossroads.
LaVine, currently in Las Vegas training with the USA Basketball Men’s National Team to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, is extension-eligible this summer and, as of now, scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2021-22 season. The Bulls, who telegraphed an intention to build an immediate contender around LaVine by acquiring Nikola Vučević at the 2021 trade deadline, can approach extension negotiations – which LaVine recently said should start soon – a couple of different ways.
While the largest straight-up extension LaVine can sign (four years, $105 million, beginning in 2022-23) right now would fall below his likely market value, if the Bulls clear roughly $14 million in salary cap space this offseason, they would have the ability to renegotiate and raise his 2021-22 salary from $19.5 million to his max of $33.6 million (30 percent of a $112 million cap) – and, on top of that, extend his contract an additional four years.
Alternatively, both sides could hold off until LaVine enters unrestricted free agency next summer to ink a new deal. That would allow the Bulls a good deal more flexibility this offseason – and give LaVine one more shot to crack an All-NBA team and qualify for a “supermax” – but postpone a payday the All-Star guard is no doubt eager to actualize.
Asked on the latest episode of the Bulls Talk Podcast whether he would prefer to iron out an extension this summer or wait to sign when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2022, LaVine made clear the timeline of him and the Bulls agreeing to terms is immaterial so long as he remains with the franchise long-term and is appropriately compensated.
“With me, I try to let my agent handle everything. But as long as it (an extension) gets done, I'll be happy,” LaVine said. “Obviously, I want to be with the Bulls, and you don't want to implicate, you know, free agency, and I understand, like, the cap room that goes into it with a sizable extension with me. So, I want the team to be good, but then I also want to be taken care of as well.
“I feel like I've done really well by the Bulls, and obviously I want to be here long-term, and I feel like I deserve what I get. So it is what it is. We'll figure (it) out when that comes. If it's this year, next year, we'll just see what happens.”
When LaVine says he doesn’t want to negatively affect the team’s free agency plans, he’s referencing a complex set of machinations that would need to occur to create the cap space necessary to renegotiate and raise his salary.
Becoming a cap-space-flush team this offseason would require a slew of tough decisions for the Bulls, including having to renounce the cap holds of some or all their impending free agents (see: Lauri Markkanen, Daniel Theis and others), and possibly waive veterans such as Thad Young or Tomáš Satoranský, whose 2021-22 salaries are only partially guaranteed.
So, while there is value in moving swiftly to lock in LaVine, a 26-year-old All-Star coming off the best season of his career, it’s a multi-layered decision for each side. Not only would the Bulls be sacrificing depth in this scenario, they’d be doing so without adding an impact name to the current roster, which must improve to get over the playoff hump next season (something LaVine badly wants).
Where LaVine is firm is in his desire to eventually receive his just due compensation. He signed his current contract – a four-year, $78 million offer sheet from the Sacramento Kings that the Bulls, then under the previous front-office regime, later matched – in the summer of 2018, coming off an abridged campaign in which he returned from a torn ACL suffered in his final season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Reasonable minds can debate LaVine’s precise market value, or the sustainability of the Bulls’ current roster structure. But it’s inarguable that, over the life of that deal, LaVine has outperformed his $19.5 million annual salary and has earned a sizable raise.
In 2020-21, he posted career-highs in scoring (27.4 points per game), rebounding (5), assists (4.9), field-goal percentage (50.7) and 3-point percentage (41.9). Excluding players still on their rookie deals, LaVine is the only player that ranked in the NBA’s top 28 scorers last season scheduled to make less than $20 million in 2021-22.
“I always add things that give fuel to the fire,” LaVine said. “When I signed the offer sheet (with the Kings), obviously, I was coming off a torn ACL, and you have to go out and get an offer sheet. That made me go out here and want to prove to everybody that — one, I'm gonna be better than what I was when I got traded here (to the Bulls), and two, I'm better than the contract that I was given.
“Now, I think I outplayed it. I think my numbers have said for the last four years that I outplayed that contract.”
Last season’s Bulls finished 11th in the Eastern Conference, and outside of the play-in picture, with a 31-41 regular-season record. LaVine, who missed 11 games down the stretch after testing positive for COVID-19, isn’t satisfied with that result, but projected a level of contentment at the direction of the franchise.
For a player that has played for six head coaches in seven NBA seasons, tore his ACL at age 21 and been traded while still on his rookie contract, perhaps some of that boils down to continuity.
“Going into this next year, knowing I'm gonna have Billy (Donovan) as a head coach, knowing who my running-mates are gonna be, with Vooch and with Pat (Williams), Coby (White), things like that, it's exciting just knowing you'll have some some bit of relevancy and consistency in there,” LaVine said. “Because I haven't had that in my career.”
Donovan, LaVine later added, is “probably one the only coaches I've really bonded with.”
“He (Donovan) really cares about his players,” LaVine added. “And I haven't been able to have that type of relationship with a coach — obviously, with inconsistencies and different things like that. But being able to talk to him on a daily basis, being able to call him, talk to him about game film or things I want to improve on, or the structure of the team, things like that, just day-to-day things that a player and their coach can talk about, I haven't had, and that relationship has been big for me. So I'm looking to continue to grow.”
LaVine has never been one to play GM. On the subject of Young’s partial guarantee, for example, he said that, while he personally “would love to have Thad on the team,” he’ll understand if the stars don’t align.
“Whatever happens, obviously me and Thad's relationship is bigger than just basketball. That's like my bigger brother. I want whatever's best for him and whatever's best for the team,” LaVine said. “That's my boy. He's an incredible player. He's a winning, team guy. I think he makes everybody better.
“Now, I'm not a front office guy. I'm not a coach. I don't speak on that. If it's not in Thad's best interest or the team's best interest, I just want Thad to be happy and I want the team to be good. So regardless of what happens there, I know Thad is going to be great for our team or somebody else's team, and our relationship is bigger than basketball.”
He won’t be playing agent either, especially with training for this summer’s Olympics in full swing. But his confidence in a deal eventually getting done is palpable.
“We'll see what happens,” he said. “I think I understand where I'm at as a player and what I deserve. And I think the Bulls do as well. It just depends on when we want to do it."