Official contract negotiations won’t begin until July, but Zach LaVine spent some time pouring the foundation Friday.
LaVine, an unrestricted free agent, spoke to reporters via Zoom shortly after president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas did an end-of-season interview at the Advocate Center. LaVine missed the final game of the Bulls’ playoff series against Milwaukee in health and safety protocols.
“It’s unrestricted free agency, for my family and me I have to go into this like it’s a decision where I have to be open-eyed,” LaVine said. “And obviously I have to make my list and talk to everybody in the summertime.”
Karnisovas made a more definitive statement about wanting the two-time all-star to stick around.
“I hope he’s here for a long time,” he said.
LaVine said he has a soft spot in his heart for the Bulls and Chicago fans, but didn’t make any direct statement like he’s hoping to never leave.
Before reading too much into that, let’s review a couple of outside factors that could affect how things play out this summer.
First, there aren’t many teams with significant cap room to put together a competitive offer for LaVine. And those teams — Detroit, Orlando and San Antonio are on track to have the most room — weren’t very good this season.
A more likely scenario would be LaVine’s camp pushing for some sort of sign-and-trade deal. With Utah taking a step back this season, maybe the Jazz would try to shake things up by offering a LaVine for Donovan Mitchell deal. Or the Lakers could conceivably push Russell Westbrook in a mutual sign-and-trade, reuniting Westbrook with his OKC coach Bily Donovan.
LaVine re-signing with the Bulls is the most likely outcome. But if he were to leave, it would probably look more like a scenario mentioned above, rather than LaVine walking and nothing in return.
Another important question is whether the Bulls will drop a maximum-salary offer on the table and expect the deal to be done. Or will they offer less?
The NBA salary cap is projected to rise from $112 million to $121 million. The maximum salary is tied to the cap, which will be officially announced in July. Based on the projection, the Bulls can offer LaVine a deal starting around $36.3 million, which could max out at five years and around $210 million.
LaVine was asked if he’s looking for a maximum contract.
“I mean, I think it’s important to me,” he said. “But you get paid what you’re valued at, and I see myself as a top guy in this league. And I think I’ve proven that over the last four years. And I think that’s what we’re going in negotiating. I think that’s what Marc, AK, that’s what him and Rich are going to have to discuss.”
LaVine was referencing Karnisovas, Bulls general manager Marc Eversley and his agent, Rich Paul. Last year LaVine switched his representation to Paul and Klutch Sports, a heavy-hitter in the NBA thanks to Paul’s relationship with LeBron James.
Looking from another angle, it’s possible the Bulls could ask LaVine’s camp to take less than a max deal with the idea they could use the savings to improve the team. And there’s an example that could play out right away.
For teams over the cap, which the Bulls expect to be, there are two tiers of the midlevel exception, which is the main tool the Bulls will use to add free agents this summer. There’s a taxpayer midlevel of $5.89 million and a non-taxpayer midlevel of $9.536 million. Both exceptions can be split and divided among multiple players.
In order to use the larger non-taxpayer exception, the Bulls need to stay below the tax threshold “apron” after adding LaVine’s new salary and any new free agents.
It’s complicated and the official numbers have yet to be announced, but it does appear to be doable. Karnisovas was asked Friday if using the larger midlevel exception is a goal this summer.
“I don’t think it’s a goal,” Karnisovas said. “You just have to have a plan of alternatives for every situation, and that’s what we had last summer. We’re going to be prepared for anything that happens, and we’ll deal with it.”
Would LaVine be open to taking a slightly smaller salary with a promise the Bulls will put the savings into improving the roster?
“I don’t think I’m going to have to be in negotiations,” LaVine said with a laugh. “They’re going to have to talk to Rich. For me, I get to sit back and figure it out from that point.”
As it stands today, the Bulls have roughly $102.7 million in salary commitments among 10 players, plus the No. 18 pick in the draft. That includes DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso, Patrick Williams, Coby White, Javonte Green, Ayo Dosunmu, Marko Simonovic and Tony Bradley if he doesn’t opt out. LaVine, Derrick Jones Jr., Troy Brown Jr., Tristan Thompson and Matt Thomas are free agents.
When Paul sits down with Karnisovas, he’ll be able to argue LaVine was relatively underpaid during the last four years. As a restricted free agent in 2018, LaVine signed a four-year, $78 million offer sheet from Sacramento, which the Bulls matched.
LaVine also played through a painful left knee injury for most of the season. He plans to visit his doctor in California soon and figure out the best course of action, which could include surgery.
“And I hope people understand that,” LaVine said. “I think that’s the sacrifices we made. Guys on the team were dealing with a lot of stuff as well. I think mine started to become a little more public. I care about basketball a lot. Basketball’s my life. I care about the guys in the locker room and on the team, the coaches, the training staff, everybody.
“I’m happy with the year. I’m happy I battled through injuries. Regardless of the contract, I think you guys see where my mindset is and the type of player I am. I’m a fighter.”
In a couple months, it will be time to fight for a new salary, but it’s going to be a very large number no matter what team he ends up playing for.