Offering a max contract (five-years, $146 million) to Zach LaVine with just 39 games of evaluation time after an ACL tear was never an ideal scenario for the Chicago Bulls.
Inconsistent play from LaVine since returning from the injury has only complicated matters. The 16.9 points in just 25.4 minutes per game jumps out as solid, but the peripherals aren’t as pretty. His shooting splits are 40.2/38.3/80.9 and his defense (particularly his off the ball defense) has been putrid in stretches. The Bulls also hope he can develop synergy with his teammates as he seems to hijack the offense at times.
All of these factors are why Stephen Noh at The Athletic believes that Chicago should explore more of a short-term extension for LaVine when he hits restricted free agency this summer rather than a more binding max contract.
The Bulls could offer LaVine something like $15 million annually for one or two years, and they’d have the advantage of still retaining his Bird rights if he did end up developing into a max-level player for his next contract. They could even give him a massive one-year deal, as the Lakers did with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s $18 million contract last summer. In doing so, the Bulls would keep their prized cap flexibility for 2019-20 and have a much better idea of what LaVine is worth post-ACL injury.
If LaVine wants to maximize his earning power in the NBA, accepting a short-term contract may be the way to go for him as well.
From LaVine’s perspective, a shorter deal makes sense too. The summer of 2018 will be one of the worst in recent history for free agents and he’ll be only 23 years old. By signing a shorter-term deal, he would give himself a chance for two more big contracts in better markets.
Of course, there’s variability with restricted free agency and the Bulls will have to play it smart as not to lose LaVine. There’s a (small) chance that another team could step up and offer LaVine a pricey long-term contract in which case the Bulls would feel pressure: they don’t really want to lose any part of their return from the Jimmy Butler trade last summer. However, the scarcity of teams with available cap space (currently only seven other than the Bulls) and a generally cold free agent market makes this scenario unlikely.
With the rebuild off to a good start, the Bulls don’t want to stunt their future by adding a bad long-term contract to their squeaky clean books. LaVine could very well be worth every penny of a max contract someday. But having more evaluation time to continue to see how his knee responds post surgery and to see how he fits with the rest of his teammates is probably more responsible than prematurely throwing a max contract his way this summer.