The Chicago Bulls made a calculated decision last offseason. With Zach LaVine entering a contract year on a below-market deal, they could have give him a raise by renegotiating and extending his contract. Instead, they used their cap flexibility to upgrade the rest of the roster. If you include the 2021 trade deadline, they added Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso in the span of a few months.
If the goal was to build a winner LaVine would be comfortable waiting to re-sign with, the results wound up being mixed. The Bulls were a stellar regular-season team. They held the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference as late as the end of February. Injuries cost them, though, and after falling to No. 6 in the standings, they were waxed 4-1 by the Milwaukee Bucks in a gentleman's sweep. Now LaVine's contract has officially expired, and as he revealed Friday, he's in no rush to make any decisions.
"I plan to enjoy free agency," LaVine told reporters. We're going to have to experience A through Z without making any fast decisions. I think that's something me and [agent Rich Paul] are going to go through and experience."
When asked if the Bulls are the frontrunners for his services, LaVine was non-committal. "You guys have been a really, really soft spot in my heart," he said. "I have to do this as a business decision, as a man, to not just be viewed one way and be like I'm automatically coming back or I'm automatically leaving."
When LaVine was discussing a possible contract last August, he cited "respect" as a primary motivator. "I just want my respect. I think that's the main thing," LaVine said. "I outplayed my contract; I've been very loyal to Chicago, I like Chicago. I just want my respect. If it's now, later, it's something that we gotta work out internally and we'll go from there."
LaVine has grown into a player worthy of a maximum-salary contract, but he has spent the past four years on a four-year, $78 million deal he originally signed with the Sacramento Kings in 2018 as a restricted free agent. The Bulls matched that offer sheet in order to keep him and have been rewarded with two All-Star appearances. Now LaVine, 27, is ready to earn what he is worth. The Bulls could have theoretically given him an extension last offseason, but without cap space, they would have been limited to only a 20 percent raise on his 2021-22 salary. That wouldn't come close to the roughly $37 million he can earn as a free agent. Should he choose to re-sign with the Bulls, he could make a projected $212 million over five years. If he leaves for another team, he would be limited to a projected $157 million over four years.
LaVine will be fairly compensated no matter where he lands, but if he does choose to leave Chicago, he's going to have a hard time landing with a preferred destination. Right now, only five teams are projected to have a meaningful amount of cap space: the Pacers, Magic, Pistons, Blazers and Spurs. None made the playoffs. LaVine could get to a better team through a sign-and-trade, but doing so would require Chicago's cooperation, and it would create some obstacles for the acquiring team. When a team acquires a player through a sign-and-trade, it is hard-capped at the luxury tax apron. That figure is typically around $6 million above the tax line. That would make it virtually impossible for LaVine to force his way back to his college town of Los Angeles, as both the Lakers and Clippers would struggle mightily to get below the hard cap.
LaVine still has two months to mull things over before he can even become a free agent. We are in the very early stages of his decision-making process, and the Bulls should still be considered the heavy favorites to retain him. But if he'd made up his mind, he likely would have said so. He has little to gain by publicly posturing. The Bulls will surely be happy to pay him the max if he wants it. They've already committed plenty of resources to building a winner. This summer, we'll find out if they've done enough to convince him that Chicago is where he wants to be.