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Bulls mailbag: Could Portland land Zach LaVine?


It’s May. Let the Zach LaVine free agency rumors begin.

Pretend you’re Zach LaVine (you two have similar verticals). Is the opportunity to go closer to home and play alongside Dame Lillard more attractive than staying in Chicago and getting that extra money? What would Portland need to sell him on? --- Tim G.

Everybody’s got either jokes or rumors. Everyone knows my vertical is higher than LaVine’s.

The first of many, many, many, many rumors comes courtesy of ESPN’s Brian Windhorst on his “The Hoop Collective” podcast. In a larger conversation about how he believes the leaguewide perception has slightly shifted from LaVine definitely re-signing with the Chicago Bulls to perhaps being available in unrestricted free agency, Windhorst raised the Portland Trail Blazers as a team who maybe “their ears are perking up.” ESPN teammate Bobby Marks detailed the steps the Trail Blazers would have to take to create a max salary slot that still would fall over $50 million short of the five-year, $213 million deal the Bulls can offer.

Waive Josh Hart, one of the centerpieces of the CJ McCollum trade. Waive Eric Bledsoe. Renounce free-agent holds on Jusuf Nurkic and Anfernee Simons.

To answer the specific question of what Portland would need to sell LaVine on, the answer, beyond the max contract that LaVine has said “is important” to him, is the chance to win a title. The three-hour drive home to Seattle could come next.

LaVine created this leaguewide shift in perception himself with his final media session after his exit meeting with management.

“I plan to enjoy free agency with what it is as a whole. I think you’re going to have to experience A-Z without making any fast decisions,” LaVine said in late April. “I think that’s something that me and (agent) Rich (Paul) get to go through and experience.”

Speaking the same day as LaVine, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas said he hopes the Bulls can re-sign LaVine.

“I hope he’s here for a long time,” Karnišovas said, adding that the All-Star guard’s nagging knee trouble this season won’t factor into negotiations. “We have a really good relationship with him. The last two years have been the best years of his career, so we’ll see what happens.’’

This echoes what team president and COO Michael Reinsdorf told NBC Sports Chicago in late February.

“My hope is that he’s here for years to come,” Reinsdorf said then. “And Zach knows how we feel about him.”

Reinsdorf added that the Bulls, who only have paid the luxury tax one time in franchise history, are willing to do so to build a contender around LaVine and DeMar DeRozan.

It should be noted that Reinsdorf said these words AFTER LaVine already had visited a specialist for his ailing knee. An MRI taken in early February revealed nothing structurally wrong with the knee, which LaVine will address this offseason. It's likely LaVine will undergo an arthroscopic procedure.

Things can change. So stay tuned. Free agency is never over until a contract is signed.

I want a healthy LaVine to return. But if he doesn’t, I don’t see him signing with a team that currently has cap space to do so. I think he’d wanna go to a big market contender, aka the Lakers, who don’t have cap space as of now. Do you think a sign-and-trade could land us a good player or would be at best getting a draft pick and a one-year rental of a role player? I wanna bring back the core. But if LaVine wants to leave, it can’t be at our expense. The other team has to give up something. We have no incentive to trade him for pennies. --- Fred B.

Well, it can be at the Bulls’ expense because he’s unrestricted. So it’s up to LaVine and his representatives.

The Pistons, Spurs and Magic project to have max cap space. Select other teams, like in the Portland situation detailed above, can get there. But it’s not a market flush with contenders, which is why plenty league observers still expect LaVine to re-sign with the Bulls.

If LaVine decides to leave, what I would say is this is where relationships come into play. The Bulls’ management team is known to be well connected and well respected around the league. So while LaVine certainly has the right to leave for nothing, it would behoove the Bulls to try to work with him and his representatives to engineer a sign-and-trade. Letting him walk strictly for cap space doesn’t seem that prudent to me because the Bulls still wouldn’t have a max salary slot. Depending on other moves, the Bulls would have in the $15-20 million range of cap space if LaVine walks for nothing.

What has your experience been like working around LaVine? How does he rank in terms of professionalism, work ethic, etc., relative to other NBA players? I'm wondering because most of the "concerns" around LaVine seem to come from the outside but among players and people in the league, it seems like he is very well respected.

In the past, some max contracts have turned toxic very quickly (John Wall, etc). Zach doesn't seem like the type to stop putting in work as soon as the ink on his contract is dry. Has this been your experience with him?

The "injury concern" label seems to be unfair because although he had a catastrophic injury in the past, he seems to be dedicated to taking care of his body and to have a great work ethic. As an outsider, he actually seems like a "safer" bet for a guaranteed contract. If I was Reinsdorf (or any employer), he seems like the type of person to whom I'd feel comfortable giving guaranteed money. --- Betsey C.

And you see Michael Reinsdorf’s comments on LaVine above.

As for my dealings with LaVine, first please know that beat writers are pretty low on the chain of command in terms of importance. That said, I agree with your overall “outside” impression of LaVine. He cares. He works. And he’s about winning and the team. In my dealings with him, he’s a very low maintenance star.

I’d share your assessment that he wouldn’t stop working or trying to win at all costs just because he got paid.

Why is it that the Bulls seem to have bought into playing “small ball” when our competitors (ex: Bucks) have a clear height advantage? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to add some size in the frontcourt? 

Finally, if you were the person in charge, would you pull the plug on the experiments of Troy Brown Jr., Tristan Thompson and Matt Thomas? I don’t mean to be harsh---and I get they might be good locker room personnel---but they’re just not benefiting the team from a fan’s standpoint. --- Abdul M. 

Well, the Bulls did sign Tony Bradley. The coaching staff’s decision to drop him from the rotation is what prompted small ball. But, yes, rim protection and size are definite offseason needs from my perspective.

As for the three players you list, it would be an absolute surprise if Thompson or Thomas returns. I personally predicted in my roster analysis piece at season’s end that Brown Jr. also won’t be back, but he’s probably a closer call. The Bulls have until June 29 to make a qualifying offer on him.

Draft day is approaching. What do you think the front office is thinking? Do we want to use our 18th pick and bundle it for a trade or do we want to acquire a “D and 3” player to grow on our team? I feel like with a healthy Zach, Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan and cast, it's win now. --- Tavo V.

Karnišovas specifically fielded a question on if the need to keep the 18th pick has grown given how much draft capital he has used to build this current roster. Here’s what he said:

“Depends who gets there, if you like him or not. I think there are going to be players that we like. There are different options if there’s a player that we like. We’re going to look at everything. Obviously, a lot of capital put this team together. There were a ton of great things and positive things this year. In order to bring players, that’s what you gotta do. But we’re going to be flexible. Like you described, the front office is pretty aggressive. So we’re going to look at everything.”

That covers a lot of ground, no? I’m used to the previous managerial regime hoarding and prizing first-round picks. It’s been a culture change seeing this regime use three first-round picks in the acquisitions of DeRozan and Nikola Vučević. Karnišovas did potentially recoup one from Portland in the three-team Lauri Markkanen sign-and-trade; it’s lottery protected through 2028 or else conveys to a second-rounder.

Win now or not, I’d guess the Bulls will use this first-round pick. They owe the Magic next year’s pick.

Is Nikola Vučević a championship caliber center in today's NBA? Or should the Bulls look to shop him in the offseason? --- RoadDawg 

I found it telling how strongly Karnišovas supported Vučević in his end-of-season session with reporters.

“He was one of our most durable players. And I think if you think about the rotations, guards going in and out, wings going in and out, I think he would have been probably the hardest guy to replace,” Karnišovas said. “But he stayed available, and he's been a vital part of what we run on offense.”

Now, Karnišovas did avoid a question on Vučević’s status as an extension-eligible player. But Karnišovas paid a significant price to acquire Vučević. I’d be surprised if he traded him after just one season and change.

Recently, I’ve been seeing some slander on the Vučević trade. While I agree there has been something left to be desired from the productivity on the court, I think that trade was still massive for the organization and would do it again in a heartbeat. I believe that without Vooch, you don’t get DeMar and potentially no Alex Caruso or Lonzo Ball. I’m curious to your thoughts on the value the Bulls got out of the trade, was it worth it and if you think the Bulls could have contended for higher-profile free agents such as those guys without Vooch. --- Jack B.

I think the trade was important for establishing management’s commitment to winning and what that said to the rest of the league. The Bulls had fallen out of relevance. The trade suggested management would be aggressive in trying to regain it, which it has.

I don’t fully agree with the impact it had on free agency. DeRozan has openly talked about his dalliance with the Lakers. When that fizzled, the Bulls far outbid the competition, though I do think Vučević playing with DeRozan in college didn’t hurt the equation. Management had its sights set on Ball from the same trade deadline it acquired Vučević onward. And Caruso had an easy choice when the Lakers wouldn’t match the Bulls offering the full midlevel exception.

As for the trade’s value, I get less hung up on what Wendell Carter Jr. and Franz Wagner are doing because I don’t think Carter Jr. would’ve achieved the same results here---things seemed done for him mentally---and there’s no guarantee management would’ve drafted Wagner. But as mentioned above, I’m used to covering a managerial regime that prized its first-round picks. And sending out two is a high price. It’s the price for an All-Star for a team needing to establish relevance, but it’s a high price.

Do you think that an offer of Patrick Williams, Nikola Vučević and the Portland pick is enough to land Rudy Gobert? And do you see this as an upgrade for the Bulls? Or is Patrick Williams’ potential too much to let him go in the trade? --- Kevin Lancor

One-word answers first: Maybe. No. And no.

Longer thoughts next: If Utah decides to trade Gobert, they will be seeking an All-Star caliber player, at least a first-round pick but probably multiple and young talent. I don’t think the Portland pick is impactful enough since it likely will convey as a mid first-round pick. And Williams has some value as a trade chip but not that much.

While Williams’ potential isn’t too significant to render him untouchable, I do think the Bulls need to prepare for LADD. Life After DeMar DeRozan. And Williams and that Portland pick represent two of their most attractive potential building blocks. DeRozan is a big fan of Williams too.

What would the Bulls have to do to consider the offseason a “success” in your opinion? I know they were talking about continuity, but what are the chances they make a big move? If they do make a big move, who do you think they go after? --- Jon M.

They need to add shooting, reserve depth and rim protection. Assuming they’re able to retain LaVine, I believe them when they talk about continuity.

Thanks for all the questions. Talk to you at the next mailbag.

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