If you were hopeful of some Bulls free agency news over the weekend, you can thank the Sacramento Kings for playing their hand.
The Kings and Zach LaVine had agreed to terms on a 4-year, $78 million offer sheet, and with only 48 hours to consider all variables before matching the deal, the Bulls only needed a few. Within two hours of the initial news breaking, multiple reports suggest the Bulls fully intend on matching the Kings’ offer.
After months of speculating what fair and market value may look like in free agency, we are reminded again it only takes one team to set the price. And as confident as either side of the argument over matching may be on their assessment of LaVine as a player, his new deal isn’t a simple situation to parse.
Based on what he’s produced to date — pre and post his ACL surgery — LaVine was never been worth $78 million over four years, particularly when factoring in the current team-friendly cap climate. But players coming off their rookie deal who have shown glimpses of being a capable second or third option, especially ones billed as a franchise pillar, they often receive a bump in salary due to perceived potential. It remains to be seen if LaVine ever reaches his ceiling — and he must to justify this deal — but for now, it’s still a viable scenario.
Making this decision harder to process is any lasting remnants of emotion — negative or otherwise — from the trading of Jimmy Butler. As a concept, the Butler deal is a sunk cost. Forgetting it and focusing entirely on the transaction at hand is the logical thing to do. But is it that simple for a team like the Bulls to do, particularly if hope still exists for LaVine developing into a productive NBA player?
Losing him for nothing has its merits when the alternative is overpaying an average player to star money long-term, but that doesn’t make the decision an easy one. If you’re more of the mindset that re-signing LaVine at a high price rather than losing him for nothing is the better way to manage your playing assets, its a fair position. The case for not matching this deal also has solid pertinent points to consider. Ultimately, it will all depend on LaVine returning to the version of himself that we saw prior to his injury, plus some serious progression. He is entering only his age-23 season, after all. If that progress happens, he’s an asset again, which is more favorable than losing a player for nothing at all.
We should also consider LaVine’s long-term roster fit, particularly on the perimeter. Though flawed, LaVine is likely the only current non-big Bull who possesses the necessary talent, skill, and athleticism to be a borderline All-Star. Keeping him and hoping he develops into an All-Star caliber player is a risk, but is it less realistic than finding the next great wing via the draft?
Free agency is the only other alternative, and by re-signing LaVine, the Bulls have effectively kicked the can on opening up two max salary slots in 2019. For those of us who had grand plans of luring two ready-made stars to Chicago, that dream is over for now. There’s always a perceived risk in playing the free agency game, and the Bulls have been burned before. So naturally, the obvious retort making its way among fans at this point is, “Look at their history, the Bulls have never signed anyone of note in free agency.” This is true, but giving up the chance to sign two established, max-level players comes with its own set of opportunity costs. Letting LaVine walk would’ve kept this scenario in play. Now, not so much.
And another consideration is that there isn’t an immediate alternative for the Bulls. Jabari Parker isn’t a better player and has far more serious injury concerns. Marcus Smart at shooting guard next to Kris Dunn would’ve been an unmitigated disaster. No player on the open market with a similar age profile or set of skills existed. Denzel Valentine likely would’ve got his wish of being an opening night starter. Which would’ve been good for him, I guess, but not for the Bulls.
And if all this wasn’t enough to analyse, the risk of another significant injury certainly should give anyone pause. Even if they’re different players with different games, the ghost of Derrick Rose and his injury issues still loom. How can you not make a parallel? Should LaVine sustain another knee injury, or any other notable injury, the Bulls will be relieving past nightmares: A once promising guard being hurt yet again whilst raking in a significant portion of the cap sheet. The new contract reportedly has some ‘injury protection’, so that’s something at least.
Factoring all these inputs, the only way to really grade his next contract is to ask yourself what contract you believed LaVine to be worth. If your viewpoint suggested nothing more than $10 million, seeing him double that likely stings. But if, like me, you felt 4-years, $60 million was a number that benefited both parties, the additional $4.5 million annual amount LaVine will earn over the next four seasons isn’t enough of a delta to let him walk.
I’m not sure such a designation of LaVine’s ability exists just yet. Not until we see what version returns to the Bulls next season. Having a training camp with the rest of the young core to iron out any kinks, and to establish an offensive hierarchy that will still focus heavily on Lauri Markkanen, will be beneficial to all. However, if this deal only inflates LaVine’s sense of worth and standing within the rotation, it could be problematic. Like his game, the fit is a wait-and-see proposition. That’s another risk.
Moving forward, if LaVine can improve and justify earning approximately 80 percent of his maximum salary, this can eventually become a good contract as the cap continues to climb over the next three seasons. And with some maturity and growth in basketball acumen, it’s still possible for LaVine to develop into a player worth a very high percentage of the team’s cap. But he may not, and only time will tell. The clock has now started on four years worth of time.