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What to make of Zach LaVine's cryptic Free Agency comments

Will Gottlieb Avatar
April 29, 2022

Zach LaVine had his exit interview this morning and as you might imagine, his upcoming contract was the focal point of the conversations.

Whether or not to give LaVine a max contract has been the question floating around the internet over the last few weeks. To me, that answer is obvious. The bigger question is whether he will take a max deal in Chicago, or move on to another opportunity in a different city.

When asked directly about his plans and options, LaVine was anything but committal.

“I plan to enjoy free agency. You’re going to have to experience A through Z without making any fast decisions.”

He wouldn’t even suggest that the Bulls are the leaders in the clubhouse.

Things you don’t want to hear from your free agent 27-year-old superstar scoring guard. That sent a panic alarm through the heart of Bulls twitter.

At the end of the day, LaVine basically played the last four years on a 50 percent discount. So he wants his money. And he deserves it. He deserves an opportunity to put pressure on the Bulls not to short change him. He deserves the opportunity to explore other options.

So, what are those options?

Leaving money on the table

The Bulls can offer LaVine, by far, the most lucrative and secure contract. Whereas another team can only offer him four years, the Bulls can go up to five. Whereas another team can offer him only five percent annual raises, the Bulls can offer eight percent.

That adds up.

I spoke to cap expert Keith Smith to show how the contract break down will look:

Because of the additional year and higher annual raises, LaVine would be leaving a total of $54.9 million on the table to sign outright with another team. For a guy who wants to be paid what he deserves, that is a pretty significant advantage in favor of the Bulls.

Of course that disparity is gigantic, but to make it apples to apples, looking at the first four years of what the Bulls can offer, they only have a $6.588 million edge.

The additional year could be a huge tipping point for LaVine, who has clearly dealt with injuries throughout his career and could look for security in that way. He could alternatively ask for that fifth year as a player option, with the ability to opt out of the deal and test free agency again ahead of his age 31 season.

There has been speculation that the Bulls may be able to get an injury provision on the fifth year of his max, or that they may ask him to take less to give the Bulls more room to operate. Based on his comments today, he’s going into these talks aggressively looking for a max deal. And he should. You don’t mess around with a talent like LaVine.

Open market and sign-and-trades

LaVine will take meetings around the league, and plenty of teams would do their best to woo and create cap space to sign him. But as of now, only the Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, and San Antonio Spurs could reasonably clear space to sign him outright.

That means, for another team to sign him, they’d have to pull off a sign-and-trade with Arturas Karnisovas and the Bulls, which has its pros and cons.

One would imagine LaVine, should he decide to leave, would want to go to a team with a better shot to win the title than the Bulls. Maybe that’s with the Lakers, for example (I know, they missed the playoffs lol).

If the Lakers wanted to pull off a sign-and-trade for LaVine, the Bulls would have to play ball. They’d have to send back equal salary (they would be hard-capped) and include assets the Bulls actually wanted. The Bulls could decide not to play ball and the Lakers wouldn’t be able to sign him without their help unless they dumped Russell Westbrook’s contract.

So the Bulls would still have some leverage here, unless another team did the Lakers a favor. It becomes very difficult to pull this kind of thing off given the assets and cap space that would need to be available from a team LaVine wanted to go to.

On top of that, assuming they sent good players back in return, it would take away from the quality of team he would be joining.

So what happens?

Keith’s best guess is that LaVine takes the five-year max from the Bulls with a player option on that last season. That gives him the most possible money with the added benefit of flexibility.

While I’m a little less confident about LaVine re-signing with the Bulls, my read on the situation is that LaVine was posturing because he wants to make sure he gets what he feels he deserves. What he deserves, he can really only get in Chicago.

Even if he is a flawed player, even if he isn’t the best or most impactful player on the Bulls, he is the franchise cornerstone. The front office spent multiple first round picks, young players and cap space to prove to him that they will build around him.

The Bulls will be above the cap and below the luxury tax regardless of what happens with LaVine. Him taking a discount doesn’t change anything big picture. So don’t mess around. Give him the full five-year max and figure out the rest later. He deserves it. No need for games.

“I hope the city understands how much I care about the Bulls,” LaVine said.

So at least there’s that.

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