You had to know it was coming.
When the Chicago Bulls bypassed the complex route to extending Zach LaVine to a contract commensurate with his capabilities this offseason — instead prioritizing drastic roster improvements for the upcoming campaign — reports of teams being interested in the 26-year-old star when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2022 were inevitable.
The Celtics are reportedly one of them. Should Bradley Beal, who can enter the market next offseason if he declines a $37.3 million player option for the 2022-23 season, opt to stay in Washington, LaVine could end up as Boston’s No. 1 free-agent target, Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe reports.
And why wouldn’t he? LaVine is just now entering his physical prime, and posted a historically efficient season in 2020-21, averaging 27.4 points on 50.7 percent field-goal shooting, 41.9 percent from 3-point range. He and Steph Curry (2015-16, when he unanimously won MVP) are the only players in NBA history to clear those benchmarks while attempting more than eight 3-pointers per game. An All-Star and Olympic standout, LaVine is an elite offensive talent and emerging star in the league. He’d be a home run addition for any team.
But that report says nothing of LaVine having any desire to leave Chicago — only that the Celtics may be interested in him. And, as of this writing, the Bulls have reason to be confident in their ability to retain him next offseason.
After all, they spent 2021 bolstering an underachieving roster with the high-profile signings of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and others — moves with which LaVine has publicly projected satisfaction. On paper, the team is well-positioned to snap its four-season playoff drought in 2022, placing LaVine in a position to showcase his talents in a winning environment for the first time in his NBA career.
The operative phrase there is “on paper.” Each of the Bulls’ past two seasons have featured unfulfilled expectations, and even after a productive offseason, nothing should be assumed. But this is the gamble the front office embraced with its free-agency maneuvering. Management, and fans, must hope it pays off.
The Bulls will also have the ability to pitch LaVine on more than the franchise’s far-away history or his own sense of loyalty come negotiation time. As owners of his Bird rights, the Bulls will be able to offer one more year (five) in a max contract than other teams (four). And if LaVine’s steady on-court improvements continue, the Bulls’ record spikes and he secures an All-NBA selection, he’d find himself eligible for a supermax contract only the Bulls could offer as well.
None of the above on its own is the be-all end-all in a negotiation. But they’re good chips to have up the sleeve.
In any event, expect a sizable raise for LaVine next offseason. And expect suitors to line up around the block. The onus is now on the 2021-22 Bulls to cultivate a desirable enough environment to stave them off.
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