With the Bulls season ending, we turn our attention to the offseason, draft, roster building and free agent decisions.
For the Bulls, that starts with Zach LaVine’s free agency.
LaVine gave no inclination that a return to the Bulls is imminent. To some fans, that is a terrifying hypothetical. Others may think the Bulls would be better off without him.
Regardless of your stance, this decision doesn’t happen in a vacuum. If LaVine does decide to leave the Bulls, what happens next?
Should the Bulls just … not try?
There is a difference between the treadmill of mediocrity and the treadmill of misery. After the last five years of missing on the playoffs and missing on draft picks, I’ll take the former all day.
LaVine is not a top-10 player in the NBA and no one is claiming so. But that’s not a reason to hold out on giving him a max contract, or just letting him walk. Maybe you don’t think he’s a max-caliber player (I would disagree). Nonetheless, having a two-time All-Star guard who’s entering his prime is a better proposition than being without him.
Wanting to let LaVine walk for nothing is a toxic mentality whereby if you don’t have one of the top 10 players in the league, it’s not worth trying, or you should lose until you luck into one in the draft.
We’ve seen this movie before.
The Bulls were scared to pay Jimmy Butler a supermax contract (different than a max contract) in 2017, so they traded him for LaVine, Kris Dunn and the pick that became Lauri Markkanen. After a half-decade of trying to play the lottery ball game, the Bulls ended up with Wendell Carter Jr., Chandler Hutchison, Coby White and Daniel Gafford.
When Arturas Karnisovas took over the basketball operations in Chicago in 2020, his strategy was to take matters into his own hands. Rather than being caught between playoff contention and truly bottoming out for a franchise-changing player in the draft, he took some calculated risks.
This has been the best part of the Karnisovas experience — despite an imperfect roster, he’s willing to find creative solutions to make the Bulls better with what he has.
There is not a superstar library where you pick whichever star you want off the shelf. These guys are impossibly hard to find, which is why one-for-one star trades don’t happen. The idea isn’t to swap stars, it’s to bring them together. So if the Bulls are the team trading away their star, the likelihood of receiving lesser players in return is high.
You don’t get anywhere in this league without quality players. Allowing an All-Star player to walk out of fear is how the Bulls ended up in this position to begin with. Letting LaVine walk, or sign-and-trading him perpetuates this cycle.
Ultimately, the Bulls have little leverage in this situation. Unlike the Markkanen situation last summer, LaVine is unrestricted and will have the ability to choose what team he wants to join. In other words, the Bulls can’t start a bidding war and take the best offer.
Here’s how that process will go, for example:
- LaVine decides he wants to play for the Los Angeles Lakers
- Bulls sign LaVine to a 5-year, $212 million max contract ($36.6 million in year 1)
- The Lakers must send back equal salary. That means the Bulls would have to take Russell Westbrook and send an additional $10 million to match salaries
- Lakers attach future picks to ensure Bulls “play ball”
- Even worse scenario: Lakers able to offload Westbrook on another team freeing themselves up enough space to absorb LaVine’s max deal themselves
Obviously, this is a hypothetical example, but adding Westbrook doesn’t help the Bulls. They are worse off on the court next year and it hurts their long-term flexibility. They’ll have an older roster with fewer assets and a core that lack shooting, defense and anything resembling complementary skillsets.
Everything the Bulls have done since Karnisovas took over has led to this point. They’ve traded draft picks (2023 and 2025 protected picks are outgoing) and strategically used their cap space all in an attempt to make this team matter.
Letting LaVine walk would be a massive step in the wrong direction and a departure from everything Karnisovas has done in his short tenure with the Bulls. The Bulls would get worse on the court, lose what little financial flexibility they have left, and be in an even worse off position to land a future star in the draft, via free agency, or through trade.