What should the Bulls do if Zach LaVine leaves in free agency?

Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images) /

For five years now, Zach LaVine and the Chicago Bulls have been as inseparable as peanut butter and jelly. He’s served as the de facto leader and franchise player over that span, as the team burned through head coaches, executives, and disgruntled former stars in an effort to bring winning basketball back to Chicago. And now, it seems the Bulls truly are back.

Led by LaVine and newly acquired star DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls battled through injury and illness alike to qualify for the playoffs and finish 46-36, the best record as a team since 2015. It seemed the team’s efforts to build around LaVine were vindicated and Chicago could focus on playing winning basketball for the foreseeable future.

However, recent comments from LaVine’s camp have spun much doubt on whether or not the star shooting guard will once again be donning a Bulls uniform. As he prepares to enter free agency, LaVine has been very public with his intentions to be rewarded for his efforts and get paid to the fullest extent possible. Although he just qualified for the playoffs for the first time in his eight seasons in the NBA, the possibility he bolts this summer is a grim thought that has been looming over many Bulls fans’ heads.

K.C. Johnson reports LaVine’s “return to the Bulls no longer is considered the slam dunk it once was,” in a recent article with NBC Sports Chicago. Coupled with his controversial and mysteriously vague exit interview in April, the two-time All-Star’s future with the team is now being met with serious scrutiny.

Although the Bulls are thriving as a team, it could all come crashing down if Zach LaVine leaves in free agency.

As Johnson notes in his article, the Lakers, Trail Blazers, Mavericks, and the Hawks have been the teams most often mentioned as potential pursuers of LaVine. Each of these candidates features a superstar player better than anyone currently on the Bulls roster, so it’s easy to see why LaVine may find any of these destinations desirable.

While it’s technically possible for Portland to sign LaVine without a cap space issue, it would come at the cost of renouncing their own free agents Anfernee Simons and Jusuf Nurkic. Therefore it should be expected that any team that makes a move for LaVine will do so via sign-and-trade.

This sign-and-trade limitation is the primary reason I believe LaVine will eventually re-sign with the Bulls, as acquiring LaVine will immediately look less palatable to any team that has to give him big money and trade away talented players. That being said, Chicago must be prepared to potentially face life after LaVine should his time in the Windy City come to an unfortunate conclusion.

Bulls payroll and cap space outlook

But let’s say LaVine decides he doesn’t care about weakening any team he’s sent to via trade and ditches Chicago. It might seem like not signing LaVine to a max extension would save the Bulls big money to utilize on other free agents, but that’s actually not the case here.

Barring any trades, these are the players who will/could be under contract to play for the Bulls next season:

  • DeMar DeRozan – $27.3 million
  • Nikola Vucevic – $22 million
  • Lonzo Ball – $19.5 million
  • Alex Caruso – $9 million
  • Patrick Williams – $7.8 million
  • Coby White – $7.4 million
  • 1st round draft pick – $3.1 million
  • Tony Bradley (player option) – $2 million
  • Javonte Green – $1.8 million
  • Ayo Dosunmu – $1.6 million
  • Marko Simonovic – $1.6 million

With a total payroll exceeding $103 million, even in a best-case scenario where the Bulls renounce the rights to every free agent ⁠— including LaVine, Derrick Jones Jr., Troy Brown Jr., Tristan Thompson, and Matt Thomas ⁠— Chicago can only open up a maximum of $18.6 million in cap room. To make things even worse, the Bulls will only open up this financial flexibility if LaVine signs with another team into their cap room. If the Bulls trade LaVine away, they’ll have to match salaries with LaVine’s old contract of $19.5 million.

Even looking long-term, Vucevic coming off the books doesn’t seem like it will magically open cap space for a star to come to Chicago. The Bulls can only open max cap space in 2023 by not signing any big deals this summer and hoping Dosunmu doesn’t play himself into a sizable contract next season. Considering DeRozan isn’t getting any younger and the fact Orlando possesses Chicago’s first-round pick next year, putting every egg in the 2023 free agency basket would be a terrible decision by the Bulls.

Chicago’s future NBA Draft pick problem

Without the ability to sign another high-impact player, this Bulls team’s window of contention would undoubtedly slam shut. Considering the Bulls only own one of their first-round picks in the next three drafts, it also doesn’t make sense to blow everything up and tank. Instead, I believe the front office would look to retool the roster and build around the young core.

Unfortunately, this means DeRozan and Vucevic would almost certainly be on the way out. Even after the incredible season DeRozan just had in Chicago, management would likely be forced to make the difficult decision to trade him away for youth and draft capital. In a way, LaVine is affecting far more than just his own fate with any decision he makes regarding his free agency this summer.

Of course, it’s worth acknowledging the fact that I could be way off base and none of this ever comes to fruition. It’s possible that LaVine departing allows someone like Dosunmu to thrive in his role, or perhaps Patrick Williams becomes the aggressive two-way wing the front office envisioned when they drafted him. Maybe signing or trading for a good defensive big man and a few shooters actually makes the team better than they were with LaVine.

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But I sincerely doubt that. While the Bulls haven’t enjoyed the level of team success they’d have liked recently, LaVine has objectively been one of the best players in the NBA over the last three years. He has carried Chicago basketball on his shoulders for the last five years and has earned every penny in his upcoming max contract.