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Reframing the Zach LaVine max contract conversation

Timmy Samuelsson Avatar
May 2, 2022

Zach LaVine is getting a max contract.

There’s no debating this point. It’s happening. The only remaining contention is whether it will be the Bulls or a rival team that is footing the bill.

Last week, CHGO Bulls beat writer Will Gottlieb outlined the possible avenues available to LaVine in securing a new, lucrative deal.

As an extension to Gottlieb’s post, I wanted to address some of the most common retorts posed by those who believe LaVine doesn’t deserve a max deal.

LaVine isn’t worth a maximum contract

Let’s start here, as this is the most common retort provided by ‘anti-maxxers’.

There are countless ways to justify why LaVine is worth a max deal. This fact might be the most compelling: Over the last three seasons, LaVine is one of 18 players to average 26 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists, per 75 possessions.

Of these payers, all have already inked a max deal for next season — except LaVine.

For context, here’s the complete list of players who qualify, sorted by Player Efficiency Rating (PER):

LaVine featuring in comparisons among some of the best players in the league is reason enough to suggest he’s worthy of a hefty pay-day.

Of course, this won’t stop the naysayers from pointing out LaVine isn’t as good as MVP-caliber players such as Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, and Joel Embiid.

It’s a fair argument. So let’s refine the same list to make it more relevant. First, exclude the sure-fire Hall of Famers. Then, remove any forward-sized phenoms. What’s left is a group of similarly-tiered backcourt players.

Ranking the above players is a matter of subjective preference. No matter the order, their traits and numbers are comparable. The only material difference between these players and LaVine is contract details.

For now.

Sign LaVine to a hometown discount, use savings to sign other free agents

I’ll do my best to tackle this point without diving deep in salary cap minutia.

First, a few points to consider:

  • Current projections state the upcoming salary cap will be set at $122 million
  • The Bulls have $100 million tied up in guaranteed deals, including player options
  • Despite his free agent status, LaVine remains on the Bulls’ cap sheet as a “cap hold
  • The cap hold in place for LaVine is set at $29.3 million
  • The guaranteed money ($100 million) the Bulls owe its players does not include free agent cap holds, including LaVine ($29.3 million)

The last point is the most important. Here’s why:

When totaling the guaranteed deals ($100 million) with LaVine’s cap hold ($29.3 million), it’s evident the Bulls will exceed the salary cap ($122 million) by $7.3 million.

Refer to the following as a visual representation of the points above:

So it is clear, the above cap sheet is incomplete. The Bulls must also account for the following:

  • Any cap holds for other possible free agents e.g. Derrick Jones Jr., Troy Brown Jr., Tristan Thompson etc (min. $29.4 million)
  • An incoming 2022 first-round pick ($3.1 million)
  • Incomplete roster charges, where applicable ($1.9m)

When the above figures are included, what this means is the Bulls will be significantly over the salary cap line.

By operating over the cap, the Bulls will not be able to add free agents via cap space. LaVine on a max deal or a slight discount doesn’t change this reality.

In either scenario, the Bulls can only add to its roster with the use of exceptions (mid-level, veteran minimums, trade exceptions).

By accepting a less-than-max deal, all LaVine is doing is lowering the total salaries that ownership owes to its players. Given the net worth of the Reinsdorf family, they can afford to give LaVine what he deserves.

LaVine doesn’t deserve to be paid the same as other superstars

Not all maximum contracts are created equal.

As noted in the table below, a players experience dictates the maximum amount they can earn in a single season.

As LaVine has completed eight NBA seasons, he’s eligible to receive 30 percent of the cap.

When LaVine receives his maximum contract, it won’t be as high as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Kawhi Leonard, all of whom have 10 or more years of experience. He will, however, be earning more than those players who’ve signed a max deal, but only have 0-6 years of experience.

So, whilst it’s true that LaVine, like his contemporaries, will be earning max dollars, it’s not the same level of money.

Giving LaVine a supermax contract is a mistake

As noted above, there are three different forms of maximum contracts. However, fans may be familiar with the term “supermax contract.”

The supermax enables players entering their seventh, eighth, or ninth seasons to sign new contracts worth 35 percent of the salary cap, a level which is typically reserved for players with 10 or more years experience.

In order to be eligible for a supermax deal, a player must have:

  • Seven or eight years of experience with one or two years left on his contract; or
  • Eight or nine years of experience and is a pending free agent

In addition, a player also needs to meet one of the following performance-based criteria:

  • NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP) in any previous three seasons
  • NBA Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) in the most recent season, or both of the two prior seasons
  • All-NBA in the most recent season, or both of the two prior seasons

Based on the above, LaVine meets the years of experience criteria. He will only qualify for a supermax deal if he wins MVP, DPOY, or makes an All-NBA team.

Safe to say the latter is the only remotely realistic accolade. Even then, it’s unlikely LaVine will make an All-NBA team this season. Should he miss out, LaVine will not be eligible for a supermax.

LaVine isn’t a No. 1 option on a championship team

Let’s get this out of the way: No logical consumer of Bulls basketball believes LaVine has the tools to be the best player on a championship team.

Still, this statement means nothing when considering his upcoming pay day.

Leading a team to a title isn’t a prerequisite for a player to receive an exorbitant contract. If it were, only a handful of players would be on huge deals. Instead, there are 40 players set to earn more than $30 million next season. This number will only increase when the upcoming free agency crop sign new deals, including LaVine.

If someone holds the belief that maximum deals should only be reserved for the best players in the league, this highlights a disconnect between personal ideals of perceived value versus market value.

Moreover, if status within the hierarchy of a title team was the sole determinant of contract value, then the Milwaukee Bucks would only be offering huge dollars to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Except they’re not. Khris Middleton ($37.9 million) and Jrue Holiday ($35 million) are among the highest-paid players in the league.

If Middleton and Holiday can earn these types of deals, so too can LaVine.

Beyond this, LaVine has posted incredible numbers over the last three seasons. He has made successive All-Star teams. He recently turned 27. His prime years remain ahead of him. LaVine is the exact type of free agent who grabs the money. All of it. It really is that simple. And it’s why LaVine deserves a max deal.

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