LaVine Contract Situation hangs over Bulls rebuild
John Paxson has said it repeatedly since the Jimmy Butler trade last June. The Bulls will be patient and methodical in trying to rebuild the roster, waiting for opportunities to use their cap flexibility when a star player becomes available in free agency or trade.
So, if you are wondering why you haven't any seen any news about Bulls' free agent transactions, it's because they aren't planning to make any big moves this summer. Trying to find a fair price point in the Zach LaVine negotiations and bringing back fellow restricted free agent David Nwaba top the to-do list for John Paxson and Gar Forman.
And judging by my Twitter mentions, it sounds like Paxson and Forman will be criticized for whatever they ultimately decide to do with LaVine. Orlando forward Aaron Gordon set the early market for restricted free agents when he agreed to a four-year, $84 million deal to stay with the Magic. You can count on LaVine's representatives to use that contract as the starting point in their negotiations with the Bulls.
Gordon's biggest advantage over LaVine is that he hasn't gone through an ACL surgery and rehab. Granted, that's a big deal. But look at the numbers and there isn't much difference between the two players. LaVine is averaging 14 points over his first 4 NBA seasons, shooting .437 from the field and .373 from the 3 point line. Gordon is averaging 11.4 points, shooting .451 from the field and .309 from beyond the arc. Yes, Gordon is coming off his best year as a pro, averaging 17.6 points and 7.9 rebounds, but he's hardly an All-Star. Plus, Gordon missed significant portions of his 1st and 4th seasons because of injuries and has already suffered three concussions, two of them during the 2017-18 season.
That's why the LaVine negotiations could drag on for several weeks, unless another team signs him to an offer sheet, which would give the Bulls three days to match or let him go. If the Bulls don't re-sign LaVine to a long term contract, the front office will be criticized for not following through on the commitment they made to LaVine as being a core player for the future on the night of the Butler trade. LaVine could play next season under the qualifying offer, bet on himself like Butler did, and become an unrestricted free agent next summer when a lot more teams will have significant cap room.
And, if the Bulls end up paying him more than what some members of the media and fan base consider a fair number, the front office will be criticized for committing too much of their future payroll for a player who has yet to prove he can be a consistent difference maker. It's the classic Catch-22 situation, no matter what the front office decides to do, a sizable portion of the fan base will insist they made the wrong decision.
Don't forget LaVine is only 23 years old and should be much better next season after a summer of full speed workouts and a complete training camp to work on building chemistry with Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen. LaVine was inconsistent in the 24 games he played last season after completing his ACL rehab, but the athleticism and explosiveness that made him a two-time slam dunk champion is still there. And, the Bulls aren't in position to let that type of young talent walk out the door.
The challenge for Paxson and Forman is working out a contract that the team and LaVine can live with. If a four or five year commitment isn't possible, maybe the two sides can agree on a shorter deal that gives the Bulls a better chance to fully evaluate LaVine's future role on the team, while also protecting the player from the risk of further injury.
Both sides have a lot at stake in making this partnership work. And, that huge contract Aaron Gordon agreed to on Sunday won't make the negotiations any easier.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
Magic Johnson and the Lakers already won the off-season when they got a commitment from LeBron James on a four-year, $153.3 million contract on the first day of free agency. Adding the best player in the game brings star power back to Staples Center and immediately makes the Lakers a lock for the playoffs.
But what in the world are Magic and GM Rob Pelinka doing with the rest of the roster?
They renounced the rights to talented restricted free agent forward Julius Randle, who was quickly scooped up on a two-year, $18 million contract by New Orleans. Randle is only 23, and averaged 18 points and 9 rebounds a game after he was moved into a starting role. The 6-foot-9 lefty is an unorthodox player, and the Lakers were able to use him to initiate offense in the half-court as a point center.
Clearly, he could have played a valuable role on the new-look Lakers as a starter or reserve.
The front office instead used that cap space to bring in Rajon Rondo on a one-year, $9 million contract. Rondo is coming off an excellent season in New Orleans, free of his usual off-the-court drama. According to ESPN's Ramona Shelburne, Rondo was told he would be able to compete with 2017 No. 2 overall draft pick Lonzo Ball for the starting point guard job. I'm sure that went over really well with Lonzo's dad! It's only a matter of time until LaVar Ball appears on some national forum to rip the Lakers' front office.
Speaking of national forums, if any network is looking for a new reality show idea, how about "Life with the Lakers"?
Clearly, the team is loaded with potential drama, starting with LeBron's adjustment to life on the west coast. Then you can add in the Ball family, along with two other free agents who agreed to terms with the Lakers on day one, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee.
Stephenson has gained the most notoriety in his career as a LeBron agitator, famously blowing into James' ear during a playoff game a few years back, and during the most recent post-season, Stephenson and James got tangled up a handful of times during the Cavs-Pacers series. LeBron got so frustrated with Stephenson's antics that he even drew a technical foul for retaliating. Now, he'll be asked to put up with Stephenson's erratic behavior as a teammate! It might make James long for the days of playing with J.R. Smith!
Speaking of high basketball I.Q.'s, McGee has become a staple on TNT's Shaqtin' a Fool segment. The 7-footer has all the physical tools to be a quality NBA center, but his brain often short-circuits at the strangest times. It will be fascinating to see what kind of tolerance James has for a guy whose most impressive stat is mental mistakes.
Of course, the Lakers could come up with a deal to acquire disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard from San Antonio, and if they pull that off, all is forgiven. But as of this moment, LeBron might want to get the team psychiatrist on speed dial to help with all the craziness he's about to see on a daily basis in L.A.
NBA fans are still buzzing about another strange occurrence in NBA free agency, All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins agreeing to join the two-time defending champion Warriors for the taxpayer's mid-level exception of $5.3 million. Cousins was counting on getting a five-year max deal from the Pelicans or a four-year max from some other team until he ruptured an Achilles tendon in late January.
Cousins told ESPN's Marc Spears he hadn't received a single offer during the first day of free agency, so he called Warriors' GM Bob Myers to offer his services on a small one year deal. Many NBA fans, media and current players are upset that the best team in the league will now be able to start five All-Stars when Cousins finishes his rehab, but the reality is no other team was willing to take a chance on Cousins, so why shouldn't he be able to rehabilitate his image and increase his value on the open market with the Warriors?
This is clearly a one year arrangement, since Golden State won't be able to offer Cousins more than a small raise over the 5.3 million he's scheduled to make in 2018-19 on any future contract. Cousins hopes to contribute to another championship team in Oakland, then head back into the free agent market in 2019 looking for a max deal when more teams will have significant cap space.
Cousins says he hopes to be ready to play by the start of training camp, but as Bulls' fans found out with Zach LaVine, the player's timetable is always more optimistic than what team doctors and front office executives are looking at.
Still, if Cousins can return after the All-Star break and play at anywhere near the level we saw in Sacramento and New Orleans, the Warriors and Cousins will both come away winners in this unique partnership.
Now that LeBron is leaving the East after being a part of eight straight conference championship teams, it's going to be fun to watch the battle for supremacy between long-time rivals Boston and Philadelphia. Those two franchises were the class of the East in the 60's, 70's and 80's, and both teams appear to be loaded for extended windows of championship contention.
Unless the Sixers are able to pull off a trade for Leonard, Boston will enter next season as the conference favorite.
The Celtics will get Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back from injury to join a talented, young team that took Cleveland to Game 7 of the Conference Finals. Jayson Tatum looks like a future All-Star and young wing players Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier also showed their value during the Celtics' playoff run. Add in All-Star big man Al Horford, plus one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, and it looks like Boston has all the ingredients to get to the Finals next June.
Philly is also poised for a deep playoff run after bringing back free agent shooting guard J.J. Redick and acquiring versatile forward Wilson Chandler in a trade with Denver.
If 2017 No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz can return to form after a bizarre rookie season, the Sixers will have a have a deep, athletic squad that should challenge Boston for conference supremacy. Plus, we know head coach Brett Brown is close with Gregg Popovich from his days as an assistant in San Antonio, so don't rule out Philadelphia as a landing spot for Leonard. Popovich might be willing to take a package of Dario Saric, Robert Covington and a couple of 1st round draft picks from Brown rather than send one of the best players in the league to his long-time conference rivals in L.A.
As for the rest of the East post-LeBron, Toronto, Indiana, Milwaukee and Washington all look like playoff teams, leaving the final two post-season spots up for grabs (In case you missed it, the Wizards added well-traveled Dwight Howard to their roster on a bargain one year contract). At first glance, Miami, Detroit and Cleveland are the top contenders for the 7th and 8th positions, with the Hornets and Bulls as darkhorse possibilities.
You can bet we'll hear a lot of talk about abolishing the conference format and just giving the 16 playoff spots to the teams with the best records. But NBA commissioner Adam Silver has been consistent in wanting to preserve conference rivalries and avoid the travel issues a top 16 playoff format would create.
We might see the All-Star game move away from selecting 12 players from each conference now that the rosters for the game are decided by a captain's player draft, but there's much more at stake financially with trying to change the playoff format.