Bulls' Zach LaVine approaching free agency with open eyes

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Zach LaVine approaching first UFA with open eyes originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

As it relates to his impending unrestricted free agency, Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine made one thing abundantly clear in his end-of-season media session on Friday:

His mind — and his eyes — are wide open.

“It’s a big decision, not just for me but for my family,” LaVine said. “Obviously I’m going to take my time and look into everything, talk with my agent. I think it’s an opportunity not a lot of people in my situation actually get to get to and I think it’s exciting. I’m looking forward to it.”

What ensued was 10 minutes or so of persistent peppering by reporters. Does LaVine wish to be a Bull long-term? Will he take meetings with other teams? Is receiving a “max” contract important to him?

LaVine was coy — but, one would have to think, honest — in his responses. Some highlights:

  • On if he wishes to remain a Bull long-term: “I’ve been here for the last five years and I’ve really enjoyed my time. I think the city — and I hope everybody — understands how much I care about the Bulls and what I’ve done for the city. I’m going into everything open-minded, but understand that my time here has been great. We’ll see what the future holds.”

  • On if he plans to take meetings with other teams: “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. I think that’s something that me and (agent) Rich (Paul) get to go through and experience.”

  • On if he would accept less money than the maximum to allow the Bulls financial flexibility: “I don’t think I’m going to have to be in negotiations (laughs). They’re (the Bulls’ front office) going to have to talk to Rich. For me, I get to sit back and figure it out from that point.”

  • On if the Bulls are the leaders in the clubhouse for his services: “You should view it as I’ve been here for the last five years. Obviously you guys have been a really, really soft spot in my heart and I have to do this as a business decision as a man. Not to just be viewed one way, and be like: ‘I’m automatically coming back,’ or ‘I’m automatically leaving,’ things like that. 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. And obviously I have to make my list and talk to everybody in the summertime.”

  • On the personal importance of being offered a maximum contract: “It’s important to me. But you get paid what you’re valued at. 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 to negotiate. I think that’s what Marc (Eversley), [Artūras Karnišovas], that’s what they and Rich are going to have to discuss.”

LaVine could have professed a steadfast desire to remain a Bull long-term. He could have expressed a desire to bolt for another situation.

Instead, his fence-riding opening statement strikes as a launching point for negotiations. This is a player who has never experienced unrestricted free agency in his career. The last time he hit the market, as a restricted free agent in the summer of 2018, he signed a four-year, $78 million offer sheet with the Sacramento Kings that the Bulls matched — and LaVine quickly outplayed.

This offseason, LaVine is eligible to sign a contract that, at maximum, begins with a salary of 30 percent of the league’s cap (assuming he doesn’t qualify for an All-NBA team and trigger eligibility for a 35-percent supermax). As of now, that salary projects around $36 million. With eight percent annual raises, that could be the starting point of a deal worth $212 million over five years.

Clearly, being compensated in maximum fashion is something LaVine desires, especially after being severely underpaid — at $19.5 million per year — for so long. And under new management, the Bulls sound ready to pony up this time around.

“I hope he’s here for a long time,” executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas said of LaVine, 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.’’

Even without the ability to match another team’s offer in binding fashion, the Bulls possess advantages in negotiations. As owners of LaVine's Bird rights, the Bulls can extend to five years with eight percent annual raises in their contract offer, while other teams aren’t able to extend beyond four years with five percent annual raises (for a total of around $160 million). None of the teams projected to be flush with cap space this offseason — think the Pacers, Pistons, Spurs, Magic and Trail Blazers — made the playoffs last year.

And Karnišovas and company have had two years to not only build a relationship with LaVine, but also make the case that they are serious about contending through a slew of aggressive personnel decisions.

Don’t think LaVine didn’t take notice of the latter.

“It was huge going out and, first off, getting a guy like [Nikola Vučević] at the trade deadline last year. Adding young talent. And then getting a guy like DeMar DeRozan to come here. And then the offseason we had with Lonzo (Ball) and [Alex Caruso], bringing in a bunch of those guys, it’s huge,” LaVine said. “It just shows that they (the Bulls front office) were ready to win. Obviously my first couple of years here it was tough to have that feeling. This year has been incredible.

“You’ve got to take everything into consideration, and obviously the team we have here is something you’ve got to consider, how good that we were this last year and moving forward. You’ve got to take all of that into consideration.”

But LaVine will take other factors into consideration too. As for what those factors are, exactly? He’s not sure yet.

“That’s a good question because  I don’t even know yet,” he said. “I think that’s something that I get to go home with my wife and my family and discuss. Make a pros and cons list, I don’t know. It’ll make me feel like I’m back in high school doing the Venn diagram. I don’t know. It’s something I haven’t thought about yet… That’s going to be a question I can answer later on this summer.”

It won’t be the only question LaVine answers this offseason. Let the games begin.

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