There are so many elements in play here that are going to compound the complexity of the dilemma that is Zach LaVine’s restricted free agency. LaVine’s profile as a player, his status as a restricted free agent, Chicago’s history with signing high profile NBA free agents, and LaVine’s short and long-term fit with the Bulls are all components of the decision making process in this scenario that work against any clear-cut solution.
LaVine’s offensive prowess and defensive shortcomings have been well documented over the course of his career, so not much restating needs to be done here. He looks like Jamal Crawford when he dribbles, he looks like Kobe when he hoists up jumpers, he looks like James “Flight” White when he dunks, and he looks like James “Flight” White when he plays defense. While LaVine has plenty of time to keep developing given his age, the basketball world still has a pretty good idea of what he’s going to bring to the court on any given night.
However, comparing LaVine’s general performance this season to those of his peers surely can’t instill any confidence in those responsible for deciding whether or not to give him a payday this offseason. LaVine’s player efficiency rating of 14.43 after 23 games would currently land him outside of the NBA’s top 20 qualified shooting guards. A few of the players ahead of LaVine include Kent Bazemore, Buddy Hield, and Tomas Satoransky. Additionally, LaVine is the only player on that list with a true shooting percentage lower than 50%, and he ranks over two percentage points less than the next low-man on that list: Dwyane Wade.
What’s a good approach to re-signing LaVine? Stephen Noh had the foresight to bring up this issue a short while ago, and he came to the very rational conclusion that a short but sweet contract for LaVine is the way to go if opting to bring him back. That gives the Bulls a bit more of an evaluation period in the short-term without hard-capping the team when the time comes to put established players around whatever young talent Chicago amasses over the next couple of years.
Yet, because LaVine is a restricted free agent, such an approach also opens the door for another team to throw a longer and/or more expensive deal at him. That would make things even more complicated than they already are, as management would have to then match said deal to avoid losing their greatest face-value asset from trading away Jimmy Butler. Such a deal would also significantly muddle up short-term flexibility for the team’s structuring, which would have a profound impact on the team’s long-term outlook regardless of whether or not LaVine pans out in their favor.
Further clouding this conundrum is the Bulls’ post-Jordan history with signing key free agents. Suppose in this scenario that the front office comes to the conclusion that the best course of action is to let LaVine sign with another team this summer. How quickly are the Bulls going to be able to replicate the value that LaVine does have? Let’s assume for a moment that LaVine—with a full offseason of good health and the opportunities to work on his game and build chemistry with his teammates—returns to form as a 20 ppg scorer next season. What are the odds that the Bulls are going to be able to replicate that value through free agency?
Would it surprise you to learn that—in their entire reign over the Chicago Bulls franchise—Gar Forman and John Paxson have never successfully brought in a free agent that scored at least 20 ppg the previous season? That might not seem too terrible on the surface given the NBA has gradually cultivated an environment where great players are incentivized to stay with their current teams. However, I would like to think that a management staff with a tenure of nearly a decade and a half in one of the most fertile basketball markets in the world would be able to bring in at least one elite offensive talent over that span of time. That’s not to say that the Bulls have never landed a free agent with more immediate offensive value than Zach LaVine—Wade, Carlos Boozer, Pau Gasol, and Richard Hamilton all posted better PERs the season prior to them joining the Bulls—but the recurring lack of a strong draw in free agency is certainly an unnerving factor in the overall evaluation of whether or not to keep him. The sad reality of this situation is that the Bulls may conclude LaVine is worth keeping around long-term if only because the likelihood that they can negotiate a deal with a similarly-valued player is slim to none.
Finally—as if this wasn’t enough of a foggy predicament already—there’s the matter of LaVine’s role with the squad going forward, and this is perhaps the most important consideration of all given how it affects the entire dynamic and development of the team. The fact that LaVine has already publicly indicated that he is in a “tug of war” with Kris Dunn when it comes to running Fred Hoiberg’s offense and that he “can’t be friends with everybody” is nothing short of incredibly horrifying for Bulls fans that had to watch Butler, Wade, and Rajon Rondo take turns dominating the ball last season. These comments by LaVine get even more terrifying when considering the historically-high usage rates LaVine has put up in a Bulls jersey that Mark Karantzoulis brilliantly outlined a couple of weeks ago. How will the young talent of the Bulls develop cohesively over the next few years if their me-first shooting guard has his own nightly shot quota to fill?
In 12 of the 19 games that Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have played together this season, the former has taken more shots than the latter. For a team trying to develop their top ten first round pick into a franchise cornerstone, that simply cannot happen. The Bulls have the luxury right now of very little pressure to play winning basketball, so the focus should clearly be on getting their stars of tomorrow comfortable with a consistent leader’s workload. By this point, most would acknowledge Markkanen’s progress is directly tied to the Bulls’ future, and Dunn at the very least looks like a quality two-way NBA point guard. There’s no questioning LaVine’s present talent and his potential upside, but is waiting to find out if he can fulfill such promise worth jeopardizing the ceilings of two players that—at this point—bring far more immediate and long-term value to the team as a whole? Even signing LaVine on the premise he can become an elite sixth man is far-fetched given how he already views himself in the context of the whole team and Bobby Portis’ desire to continue his relentless bum-slaying.
Unfortunately, when looking at this whole picture and trying to predict what will happen, even a short term deal won’t be a great result if it’s paying eight figures annually. I keep coming back to the conclusion that LaVine is going to be brought back for the wrong reasons: because of what he represents rather than what he actually brings. He was a vital part of the haul from the trade with Minnesota and the front office will definitely have egg on their face if they were to lose a third of the value they got in exchange for Jimmy Butler. Furthermore, the Bulls’ history of missing out on high-profile free agents has to put the front office in a position where they really can’t afford to let LaVine walk for nothing. This is all despite the fact that LaVine is clearly a one-way player at this stage, is due a good chunk of change on his forthcoming contract, and doesn’t look like a player that’s going to aide the improvement of Dunn and Markkanen in any way.
LaVine could absolutely turn out to be a superstar player one day, just as easily as he could end up being the NBA’s next bouncy chucker with the defensive ability of a turnstile. Either way, the Bulls front office has tasked themselves with making a critical decision that will impact the course of their franchise for the second year in a row. Chicago can only hope they make the best decision for everyone involved.