When the Bulls swung a trade deadline day deal for Nikola Vučević, it signaled in part a commitment to building a winning program during Zach LaVine’s prime.
This summer will bring another chance to fortify that commitment. Coming off a season in which he earned his first All-Star nod and posted career-best averages in points, rebounds, and assists — and shooting percentages from the field and 3-point range — LaVine’s current contract becomes eligible for extension this offseason. If not extended, LaVine can enter unrestricted free agency in 2022.
“That's something that we're going to have to talk about going forward,” LaVine said of potentially signing an extension this offseason at his end-of-season press conference Monday. “I love it here in Chicago, and I think everybody obviously understands the business of basketball and anything can happen and trades like that. But for me personally, I let that stuff handle when it comes by.”
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That jibes with how LaVine typically handles questions related to front office dealings. Trades and free-agent signings fall outside of his jurisdiction as a player.
But asked if he would consider taking a discount if it meant the team would have more flexibility to bring in other pieces around him, LaVine was clear.
“I try to let my performance obviously on the court dictate what I get. I think that’s what everybody wants, to get paid what they’re worth, and when my time comes I definitely will get that,” LaVine said. “I think with different situations with different people taking less money or taking the max, it’s a business at the end of the day. And I definitely want what I deserve, and whatever that is, I’ll have it coming to me.”
LaVine’s current contract is scheduled to pay him $19.5 million next season, far below market value for a 26-year-old who cracked the top seven in scoring this season on near-historic efficiency. The most the Bulls can offer him in a straight extension this offseason would begin at 120 percent of his $19.5 million 2020-21 salary ($23.4 million) with annual eight-percent increases over four years, amounting to the $104-105 million range. But that extension wouldn’t kick in until 2022-23, and is also below the stratosphere LaVine vaulted to this season.
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 a starting salary of $33.6 million in 2021-22 with four years, $152 million tacked on afterward.
Or, the Bulls could wait, allow LaVine to hit unrestricted free agency next offseason and re-sign him using his Bird rights. The Bulls could then offer him a contract starting at up to 30 percent of the salary cap — more money than what they could extend him for in the first scenario, but riskier than renegotiating and extending him now at the same percentage.
Excluding players on their rookie contracts (Luka Dončić, Zion Williamson, Trae Young, Collin Sexton), LaVine is the only player of the league’s top 28 scorers this season scheduled to make less than $20 million in 2021-22. Terry Rozier, who ranked No. 29 averaging 20.4 points per game, is set to make $17.9 million that season.
Asked if the front office had plans to address LaVine’s extension eligibility this offseason, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas played coy, but highlighted LaVine's growth throughout his seventh season.
“Everything is going to go day-by-day. Obviously, we’re looking forward to talking to Zach in the future,” Karnišovas said. “I think looking at his numbers and how well he played this year — he improved in points, field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free-throw percentage, assists, rebounds. He was a much better player this year.
“Again, we sat down with Zach (at his exit interview) and talked about this summer. Because we’re going to ask players to do more. Because obviously the results are telling us it’s not good enough. And he’s looking forward to the challenge. So we had those conversations.”
Those results were a 31-41 regular-season record that, for the fourth year in a row, left the Bulls short of the postseason. After the front office's active deadline, the team went 12-17 down the stretch — 7-8 with LaVine in the lineup. A massive disappointment.
Still, LaVine multiple times in his end-of-year reflections spoke optimistically about the Bulls’ future, and positively about the relationships he’s forged on the roster and with Billy Donovan, who he said he is excited to work with "next year and many years to come, hopefully." Vučević said in his earlier presser that LaVine is “very motivated to win, and he really wants to do that here.”
So stay tuned. The Bulls invested resources to cater to LaVine this season, and one way or the other, they'll soon get a chance to do so again.