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The Bulls and Zach LaVine have some negotiating to do this summer

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Should the Bulls hedge against LaVine reaching unrestricted free agency?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Detroit Pistons Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulls held their end-of-season ‘exit interviews’ online, with several players and head basketball dude Arturas Karnisovas participating. There was literally nothing of interest said the entire afternoon.

But it was asked of both Karnisovas and Zach LaVine their plans for a possible early contract extension, as LaVine is slated to make $19.5M in the final season of his 4-year deal. Again, they said nothing outside of the expected pap (AK, especially, is a total dud of a talker), so we are left to speculate on what that could look like.

It’s an interesting dilemma to be sure, and it requires some thought and knowledge of the cap. So we can immediately rule out the idea of LaVine taking a ‘standard’ extension of 120% above his final-year salary. Nobody worth taking seriously would even suggest it let alone be a proponent of it, unless they were being disingenuous and/or insulting to LaVine and/or trying to curry favor with the owner’s son.

The negotiation this summer between the Bulls and LaVine wouldn’t be about whether LaVine would ‘take less’ as much as whether he should ‘take it now’ versus becoming an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2022.

It’s important to also remember that there are different degrees of ‘max’, and ‘supermax’, and the Bulls don’t have to offer the top allowable dollar for it to still be above what another team can offer LaVine in free agency. This was kind of lost in the Jimmy Butler failure, the last time a Bulls player was looking to be correctly paid as a star.

Now, I am less bought-in on LaVine than I was with Butler as a max (or merely max-ish) level player. The notion to extend this summer was brought to the forefront by LaVine’s outstanding play before the All-Star break. After the break, LaVine cooled off a little (plus got injured, then held out of weeks of games due to health and safety protocol) but his team impact numbers improved.

Even with that caveat, the Bulls themselves likely see LaVine as this level of player because we see their actions: trading future assets for a complement to LaVine was as much a buy-in of LaVine as it was the acquired Nikola Vucevic.

And, again, there’s merely a little room for nuance when it comes to the market of LaVine’s next contract: whether or not he is ‘deserving’ of this tier, he is going to get something well above his current salary. The question then is if the Bulls want to pay him that level or not move on without him on the team.

So back to the options for the Bulls and LaVine:

Renegotiate and extend this summer using cap space

NBC Sports Chicago puts it succinctly:

Another route, which was first posited by Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus, would be for the Bulls to clear around $14 million in salary cap space this offseason, and use that cash to renegotiate and extend LaVine to a deal that could max out at roughly four-years, $151 million, with a starting salary of $33.7 million in 2021-22.

So there are the numbers (again, maybe Bulls can squeeze a couple mil, or do deescalating salary, but it’d be minor) for LaVine, but what we need to also consider is how this would impact the Bulls 2021 offseason plans. They can pretty easily get to that cap space amount (even if they keep their 2021 top-4 pick and that cap hold) but then have limited options to make free agency acquisitions. They’d essentially have the ~$4M room exception, and minimums. They would not be able to sign a big-money free agent with cap space, nor choose to operate over-the-cap and use the Mid Level Exception. They could still make trades, including potentially a sign-and-trade with Lauri Markkanen.

Wait until next summer

The Bulls don’t have to be proactive about this. They can wait. It’d mean seeing how LaVine plays with Vooch for a full season, plus it opens many more avenues of ways to improve the team this offseason.

The potential risk is LaVine’s play. If he improves, like he has his whole career, then there really isn’t a ‘problem’ in paying everything possible to lock him up. If that 2020 shooting was unsustainable and he still never gets to an average defender, I suppose the Bulls dodged a bullet not ‘max’-ing him the prior summer, but then have a risky situation where LaVine could walk to another team.

The dilemma is encountered if LaVine stays roughly the same, but in July 2022 instead of having been extended for 3 more seasons at $117M, the Bulls will likely need to offer a 5-year deal starting at a number higher - basically the percentage increase of the overall cap increase - than $33M the prior summer. Then there’s an additional possibility that LaVine’s salary would be elevated even higher if he receives an All-NBA selection. Again, that wouldn’t be an issue if he improves overall, but award voting can be weird and not commiserate with actual player impact.

It’s Zach LaVine’s choice too

LaVine’s decision-making factors don’t include whether or not to ‘help the Bulls’ (I repeat: nobody to be taken seriously thinks this, let alone would write it unironically), it’s whether to take the bag now or bet on himself to get even more later. It’s certainly possible that by not taking an extension now, that offers the front office more ways to improve the 2021-22 team which will only help LaVine in getting that larger next contract.

The Bulls are in a spot, though it’s inherently a better spot than if they had nobody worth paying star-tier money to. Perhaps what they do is first see how free agency goes, then if they can’t get a high-value player then instead at least try to lock up LaVine. Or they more aggressively pursue immediate improvement now, figuring that in 2022 they will give LaVine a 5-year deal - whatever it takes to have him stay.

An early renegotiation and extension is actually fairly low-risk for the Bulls in terms of LaVine’s value (reminder, only 3 years added on his current deal) but will require more creativity to get him to the playoffs for the first time in his career.