Artūras Karnišovas, Chicago Bulls President of Basketball Operations, has a big decision to make this summer, if you listen to a certain segment of Bulls fans and Chicago media. Can you win big with Zach LaVine as a guy with a maximum contract on your team?
Of course, that is not at all the right question to ask and Karnišovas has hardly a decision to make at all. OF COURSE, you max out Zach LaVine. Why is this so obvious?
LaVine Has Earned a Maximum Contract
Getting this out of the way first, as it is the most relevant point here. Zach LaVine has turned himself into somewhere between a top 20 and 30 player in the league (evidence: no All-NBA teams, but back to back All Star berths), despite entering the league as a very raw project with interesting tools and a moldable skillset but a seemingly limited understanding of team basketball.
LaVine also did all of this improving despite being in a series of terrible situations, first in Minnesota and then in Chicago. He had 6 coaches in his first 7 years in the league, with this season with Billy Donovan representing the first time in his career that he had the same head coach to start back-to-back seasons. LaVine also refused to let suffering a torn ACL in his third season at the age of 22 stop him getting better. Simply put, LaVine has an incredible work ethic and that work ethic has been the Bulls’ one constant in the post-Jimmy Butler era.
LaVine’s last contract paid him only $19 million a season, on average, and it is very safe to say he outplayed that contract. It’s possible the Bulls former brass (Fire GarPax again, if possible, please) soured the relationship between the team and player all the way back then by making LaVine seek out a restricted free agency contract with the Sacramento Kings and matching it, rather than simply paying LaVine what he was actually worth. Hopefully for Bulls’ fans sake and the sake of the new front office group that damage isn’t fatal to keeping LaVine, who, it must be said, is an unrestricted free agent. This leads to the next point.
It’s Not About The Money, It’s About Respect
No matter where LaVine ultimately ends up this summer, he’s going to be incredibly well compensated for his services. That’s not really at issue here. One thing that the Bulls guard has made very clear is that, to him, the question of his compensation is about him feeling respected and treated like the player he has proven himself to be.
Here’s LaVine saying as much himself to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst last summer:
“I just want my respect, that’s the main thing,” LaVine said Monday after practice ahead of Team USA’s quarterfinal game against Spain set for Tuesday.”I outplayed my contract. I’ve been very loyal to Chicago. I like Chicago. I just want my respect. If that’s now or later, it’s something we’ve got to work out internally.”https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/31941230/chicago-bulls-star-zach-lavine-eligible-extension-offseason-looking-respect-new-contract
Zach repeated this theme in his end-of-season press conference with Chicago media.
“It’s important to me. But you get paid what you’re valued at. I see myself as a top guy in this league, and I think I’ve proven that over the last four years. And I think that’s what we’re going to negotiate. I think that’s what Marc (Eversley), [Artūras Karnišovas], that’s what they and Rich are going to have to discuss.”https://www.nbcsports.com/chicago/bulls/bulls-zach-lavine-approaching-free-agency-open-eyes
LaVine wants to feel like he’s being valued by the franchise and he feels like he wasn’t properly valued or respected on his last contract, because as he mentioned last summer to Windhorst and again in a back and forth with Joe Cowley in the same recent end-of-season press conference mentioned above, he outplayed his contract. He doesn’t have to settle for less than his value in unrestricted free agency and he has given every indication that he believes he should be receiving the maximum amount he can receive under the collective bargaining agreement.
Given that the Bulls already short-changed him, in his eyes, for the last four years, they have very little margin for error in their discussions with him, especially as there are a handful of teams with cap space to sign him outright to a max deal (granted those deals would be a year shorter and have smaller annual raises of 5% versus 8% he could receive with Chicago).
If Chicago messes around and tries to get cute by offering anything short of the 5 year, $212 million dollar deal for which LaVine is eligible, they increase their risk of losing him for absolutely nothing.
Lack of Liquidity in Talent Acquisition in the NBA
This gets to the last bit that really matters. The alternative to giving Zach LaVine the money he wants and, in his eyes and my eyes, he deserves is not that you get to offer that money to another, better mystery player. The two options to not paying LaVine are: (1) sign-and-trading him to some other team for a package of players that are worse than him and (2) losing him for nothing.
In a sign-and-trade situation, LaVine would be deciding which team without actual cap space he wants to go to, using the threat to leave for nothing to one of the teams with cap space as leverage to force the sign-and-trade and the Bulls would be getting whatever they could negotiate out of that team in trade negotiations. Given the current front office group’s propensity for losing trades on the margins, that’s not a scenario about which to be optimistic.
Even if they lose LaVine for nothing, Chicago is going to be more or less capped out, given the contracts handed out last summer to DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, plus Nikola Vučević’s $22 million expiring contract. At most, Chicago would have around $16 million in cap space if they lost LaVine to another team for nothing and renounced their remaining free agents for cap space. This should be obvious, but the Bulls are not finding another player better than Zach LaVine in free agency for a starting annual salary of $16 million a year.
In short, losing LaVine in the off-season, no matter the circumstances (sign-and-trade or having him walk for nothing) would be an utter disaster for the Bulls, without any further context. With the context of last summer’s offseason and the prior season’s trade deadline, it would be a franchise asteroid, putting them in a crater from which they might take a decade to dig out.
Chicago Already Went All-In on LaVine Last Summer
Karnišovas and Marc Eversley went all out to build a winning team this summer and last year with the moves to acquire Vučević, Ball, and DeRozan. This after Gar Forman and John Paxson left them with an already relatively bare cupboard after a poorly executed rebuild, kicked off by trading Jimmy Butler for way less than his full value. As a result, the Bulls are very asset poor. They’re out their 2023 first round pick, 2025 pick first round pick, and have no second round picks for as far out as the eye can see. They also didn’t have their 2021 first round pick this past summer, a pick which turned into Franz Wagner, who appears to be a future stud.
If the Bulls lose LaVine in the summer, they have to consider blowing things up all over again, especially if they aren’t able to make the loss a sign-and-trade for real value. The core of this team without LaVine is simply not good enough to make the playoffs, let alone to make any real noise in the playoffs in a significantly improved Eastern Conference. They’d have to trade DeRozan and Vučević for draft picks and see what value they could get for Caruso. Ball is probably untradeable at the moment with the concerns around his lingering knee injury. Most fans rightfully want no part of another teardown. I know I certainly don’t.
To use a poker term, Chicago is pot-committed to this version of the team and as a result, they absolutely have to everything they can to retain Zach LaVine’s services. That means offering him 5 years, $212 million and hoping the good feelings of the first three quarters of this season and the full bag is enough to keep him in the Windy City. It’s really the only option here and I think it’s what Bulls’ brass will do. Hopefully, it’s enough.