Bulls’ Zach LaVine excited by team direction despite no extension

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LaVine excited by Bulls’ direction despite no extension originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Bulls and All-Star guard Zach LaVine didn’t agree to a contract extension during the 2021 offseason.

But to hear player and lead executive tell it, that’s no indication of either side’s long-term commitment to each other.

“The one thing that we know is we (are) committed to Zach. We want him to be in Chicago for a very long time,” Bulls executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas told reporters on Media Day. “I think (our) trade deadline and free agency moves kind of proved that.

“He (LaVine) has a great relationship with Billy, a good relationship with me. I can’t wait to see how the players we added to the team are going to work together and gel. And that’s about it. We really feel good about Zach and about this season.”

When informed of Karnišovas’ comments, LaVine projected gratitude and excitement about the team’s offseason additions, adding later the front office accepted input from him on their maneuvering. 

“It means a lot, hearing that from them,” LaVine said. “I think you guys know I’m a team-first guy. I’m excited with all the moves that were made, and really looking forward to getting into camp and getting to know these guys and getting the season started, because we all have a lot to prove.”

Don’t expect the discussion topic of LaVine’s future to dissipate any time soon. He’s due for unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2022, and figures to be one of the few elite names available in a subdued market.

And though LaVine stressed that his focus is solely on the start of training camp — “I’m not even worried about my contract situation. I think there will be a point in time in the future. My mind is on tomorrow, starting this thing off right, working hard, and getting forward with helping us win,” he later added — don’t expect his next contract to feature any discounts, either.

Since the latter half of last season, LaVine has repeatedly emphasized his desire to be paid what he “deserves” in his next deal. The 2021-22 season marks the final year of the four-year, $78 million offer sheet he signed with the Sacramento Kings (later matched by the Bulls) in 2018, which pays out $19.5 million per season.

At the time, the contract was questioned, but LaVine has far outperformed it — a fact he’s acutely aware of. In 2020-21, he posted career-highs in scoring (27.4 points per game), rebounding (five), assists (4.9), field-goal percentage (50.7) and 3-point percentage (41.9). As of the offseason, he was the only player that ranked in the NBA’s top 28 scorers in 2020-21 scheduled to make less than $20 million in 2021-22 (excluding players on rookie contracts).

“I always add things that give fuel to the fire,” LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago in July. “When I signed the offer sheet (with the Kings), obviously, I was coming off a torn ACL, and you have to go out and get an offer sheet. That made me go out here and want to prove to everybody that — one, I'm gonna be better than what I was when I got traded here (to the Bulls), and two, I'm better than the contract that I was given.

“Now, I think I outplayed it. I think my numbers have said for the last four years that I outplayed that contract.”

The Bulls had an opportunity this offseason to renegotiate the final season of LaVine’s deal to pay him up to his max of $33.6 million, and, on top of that, extend the contract an additional four seasons. 

But such a maneuver would have required shedding significant salary (and rotation players) to open up approximately $14 million in cap space, complicating what could have been a clear-cut decision if the CBA didn’t limit LaVine’s maximum straight-up extension to begin at just 120 percent of his current salary ($23.4 million).

So the Bulls made a calculated gamble. In lieu of an extension, they exhausted nearly every possible resource to improve their roster, executing four separate sign-and-trades in the month of August and netting two of the highest-profile free agents in franchise history in DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball to link up with LaVine and Nikola Vučević (acquired at the 2021 trade deadline). 

Those decisions position LaVine to enter free agency in 2022. But, as Karnišovas noted, they were also made with the intention of building a contender around LaVine.

“They (the front office) allowed me to have some type of input,” LaVine said, “but at the end of the day that’s their decision. I’m a basketball player, and I’m here to come in and help the team win games. But they had some communication with me and that shows a lot of trust. And I appreciated that from them.’’

Now, the onus is on the Bulls — and LaVine — is to win. Spirits are always highest at the start of training camp, but ratcheting up the standings, and snapping the team’s four-season playoff drought, can keep them that way. 

Should the Bulls’ campaign play out as internally expected, they’ll have an easy pitch for LaVine in 2022, replete with a maximum contract offer of five years in length and north of $200 million in value. Because the Bulls own LaVine’s Bird rights, they are the only suitor that will be able to offer five years in length, and should LaVine earn All-NBA honors, Chicago would also be the only suitor with the ability to offer him a supermax extension, which would begin with a salary worth 35 percent of the salary cap as opposed to 30.

Those, as LaVine would say, are issues for another day. On the eve of training camp, at least, the outlook of the partnership between the organization and LaVine is a rosy one.

"This is the most excited I’ve been, especially with the talent of the team that we have here, the support they’ve given me. I’m extremely happy about that," LaVine said. "I’m ready to hit the ground running and go out there and just get it going. There’s an excitement around the city, but there’s a bigger excitement around the team as well, because we know we can do something.’’

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