When the Chicago Bulls matched the four-year, $78 million offer sheet Zach LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings in 2018, it was legitimate to wonder if they made the right decision. LaVine had just struggled mightily coming off a torn ACL and had notable weaknesses in his game aside from that. Two-plus seasons into that deal, it’s clear the Bulls made the right call after initially acquiring LaVine in the 2017 Jimmy Butler trade.
LaVine has improved each season in a Bulls uniform and is enjoying a career year so far in 2020-21. He’s averaging a career-high 27.0 points, 5.3 assists and 5.2 rebounds while shooting a red-hot 50.2% from the field and 39.7% on 3-pointers. His 64.2% true shooting mark is fifth among players with a usage rate over 25, and there are other advanced statistics painting a picture of improvement.
While turnovers (4.3 per game) are still an issue, LaVine’s playmaking has taken a step forward. Even his much-maligned defense isn’t as bad as it used to be, even if it’s still not good and he’s prone to lapses (his on/off defensive rating splits aren’t pretty). The 25-year-old won’t ever be the best player on a championship team or even a bona fide two-way player, but his value is undoubtedly on the rise.
With LaVine set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2022, the conversation is shifting to just how much money he’ll be looking for on that next deal. Now that he’s one of the top scorers in the NBA and playing at an All-Star level, the shooting guard will be looking for a major raise on the $19.5 million annually he’s currently making. A max contract could very well be on the table, even with his flaws, which would pay him more in line with contemporaries such as Donovan Mitchell, Jamal Murray and Devin Booker.
The new Bulls front office is using this season to evaluate LaVine and the rest of the young core before making any big decisions. The results have been mixed thus far, with the LaVine-Coby White backcourt showing flashes of brilliance amid clear growing pains. There will be increased trade interest in LaVine as the March 25 trade deadline approaches, especially with James Harden off the board. If another team puts a Godfather trade offer on the table for LaVine, Chicago should consider taking it to help build up its asset base as the rebuild continues. A trade is more likely if the Bulls don’t develop as hoped (Wendell Carter Jr.’s injury doesn’t help for evaluation purposes), but what if they’re actually committed to investing big in LaVine and not trading him like they did Butler when they didn’t want to pay him a supermax?
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Chicago has options when it comes to signing LaVine to a new long-term deal, as noted by Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus. The Bulls could look to sign LaVine to an extension this offseason, but the issue with a standard extension is it’s limited to 120% of his $19.5 million salary in 2021-22. This would give him a starting salary of $23.4 million on an extension, which is almost certainly below what he’s looking for, no matter how many years is offered.
If LaVine hits free agency in 2022, Chicago could offer him a max deal worth upward of $190 million over five years (other teams can only offer a four-year contract). The Bulls could also come in with a lucrative offer below the max, but in either case, there would be a chance he leaves Chicago (a sign-and trade could be on the table in this case).
Perhaps the most intriguing option is the Bulls using cap space (they could have up to $52 million) this upcoming offseason to renegotiate LaVine’s deal to the max and then extending his contract. As Pincus writes, Chicago “would need roughly $14.2 million in cap space to give LaVine a raise (starting with the 2021-22 season) that would pay him approximately $151.7 million over four years.”
With so many stars already off the market in 2021, using cap space to take care of the best player on the roster would make some sense for the Bulls, even if this kind of money seems daunting. Yes, LaVine has never made the playoffs in his career and has clear limitations, but he’s a hard worker who’s just entering his prime and is still getting better. According to Pincus, “the young shooting guard would be equally dedicated to producing for the organization” if he were to get a long-term commitment from the franchise.
If things don’t work out with this Bulls core, the front office could still look to make big moves in an attempt to build a contender with LaVine in the coming years. The old regime never bothered trying that with Butler and traded him immediately after the ill-fated experiment with Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo, leading to what has been a painful rebuild to this point.
This new front office now finds itself in a similar spot with LaVine and the potential of paying him big dollars on a team with no established core and a questionable future. While he’s not as good as Butler was in 2017, there’s still value in keeping LaVine and building with him, especially since tanking isn’t as viable anymore due to the revised lottery odds. Perhaps he’s able to attract other stars, or Chicago cashes in other assets to acquire better players to play alongside him. LaVine would still be easily tradable on a lucrative new deal, barring disaster, so the Bulls could pivot away from him down the road if necessary.
Chicago certainly doesn’t face an easy decision with Zach LaVine. But unless there’s a trade offer that can’t be refused on the table, the Bulls should strongly consider paying up if he continues to play at such a high level.