The immediate shock and awe emanating from the NBA twitter world after Zach LaVine signed his $78 million offer sheet with the Sacramento Kings was only met by the collective head-shaking when the Chicago Bulls quickly matched it.
There’s the Kings being the Kings, having a roster with young, developing wings going after a restricted free agent with an offer that wasn’t overwhelming.
There’s the Bulls, doing things only the Bulls would do, matching an offer in a depressed market when they held all the leverage.
While the Bulls aren’t at a bad place with their rebuild, with a better than average trove of young players and a decent amount of cap space for the future, anything the Bulls do will bring about a healthy amount of skepticism.
John Paxson and Gar Forman have taken their hits from the fan base and media over the years—which shouldn’t be unexpected considering the misses and missteps that seemed to whitewash some of the mild successes over the last decade.
And because they’ve placed no definitive timeline on the rebuild, nor have they copyrighted it with some funny hashtag, nobody knows how to measure performance in the short term or long-term.
Nobody wants to keep hearing, “in three years you’ll be blown away” but then again the Bulls would be fools to put a timeline on things publicly if ownership hasn’t given them a mandate privately.
Enter Zach LaVine.
The Bulls branded him as the face of the rebuild as he went through ACL recovery and predictably, struggled upon his 24-game return even though he had his share of ups with the downs.
And with Lauri Markkanen emerging as an unexpected performer in his rookie season, the attention shifted from LaVine to Markkanen, from the public and in narrative.
So with a tight market and numbers that didn’t overwhelm, some observers believed it would be best for the Bulls to let LaVine walk if the price got too steep—and for some, $78 million was where the line was drawn.
LaVine’s average salary of $19.5 million looks hefty on its face but it’s the price of doing business in today’s NBA. If he makes a flat $19.5 million for the four years with no raises, he’d rank 10th at his position in terms of salary—behind Gary Harris, Victor Oladipo and Bradley Beal—and barely halfway to his former teammate in Minnesota, Andrew Wiggins, who’s at the top of the list making $36 million on his max deal.
Klay Thompson is due for a raise, and Jimmy Butler will assuredly cash next summer when he opts out, as most expect him to.
LaVine is due—for a bump in performance.
The contract has placed an expectation on him for the first time in his career and telling from his unwavering confidence, it’s something he’s wanted. He was overlooked in high school and even at UCLA, then became the third wheel in Minnesota behind Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Once he got to Chicago, he admittedly was ready to embrace everything that came with being in this position, for this franchise—even if his body wasn’t quite ready to fulfill that promise.
So those flashes felt more like an anomaly than a sign of things to come—more a mark of distrust from the fan base to this current regime than of LaVine’s small sample size.
All LaVine has wanted was an opportunity to show he can perform like an upper-echelon player and more recently, for his body to cooperate. The expectations should be high.
Better this than a low bar a player manages to shimmy under.
Assuming he’s healthy, he has to perform and at least lead by validating the contract and stature he had upon his arrival.
If you believed LaVine was nothing more than a highlight waiting to happen and no substance behind it, last year wasn’t going to do anything to change that perception.
If you believed LaVine was a star in the waiting, being a victim of circumstance and bad timing, last year didn’t change that, either.
And it shouldn’t have.
If the Bulls’ evaluation of LaVine was correct, it’ll bear that out this season and it doesn’t have to be shown by wins and losses.
If they were in a rush to move Jimmy Butler and took a deal that reflected that desperation, this season will show that.
In essence, the contract is less about LaVine and more about the front office getting yet another chance to elevate this franchise to something it hasn’t been since Michael Jordan left town.
While the cap spike resulted in exorbitant salaries over the past couple years and the Bulls didn’t participate to start the rebuild and maintain flexibility, the market was set and LaVine got the going rate for an above-average shooting guard.
And the salary cap is due for another jump next summer, from $101 million to $108 million, meaning LaVine’s cap hit won’t feel as sizable in the coming seasons.
Not to mention, the NBA getting involved in the gambling business is sure to filter into the salary cap in coming years, so the sticker shock won’t last long in perspective.
If LaVine doesn’t perform, he’ll be easy to move in the expected climate. If he does, he’ll be a value contract on an ascending team in a big market.
If things fall apart, some will finally have the validation on the front office they’ve long held to be true.
Only the Bulls, right?