Should Chicago Bulls Max Out Zach LaVine Despite Health Concerns?

Sean HighkinFeatured Columnist IIIApril 28, 2022

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 24: Milwaukee Bucks guard Wesley Matthews (23) and Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) in action during Game Four of the Eastern Conference First Round Playoffs between the Milwaukee  Bucks and the Chicago Bulls on April 24, 2022 at the United Center in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Chicago Bulls' season came to an end at the hands of the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, a first-round playoff loss to the defending champions that was a formality with Zach LaVine, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso sidelined.

LaVine, the two-time All-Star guard who has blossomed in recent years in Chicago, missed the decisive Game 5 after entering health and safety protocols. Now, both he and the Bulls are facing an offseason that will define the next era for president Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley.

Two major things are happening at the same time with LaVine. His left knee, which has bothered him all season and hampered what appeared to be an All-NBA-caliber campaign, is apparently in much worse shape than anyone has let on. The Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley reported on Wednesday that offseason surgery on that knee is in the cards.

Just two months after that surgery, free agency will open and LaVine will be one of the biggest names to hit the market. The Bulls will have to decide whether they want to commit north of $200 million over five years to build around him long-term.

For all the concerns about the health of a knee that LaVine will have now had two surgeries on (he missed over a year with a torn left ACL earlier in his career, in Minnesota), and about what giving him that kind of money will do to the Bulls' long-term roster outlook, letting him go isn't really an option.

Karnisovas and Eversley inherited LaVine from the previous front-office regime when they took over in the spring of 2020, and at that point, there may have been some doubt about whether the one-time centerpiece of the still-questionable 2017 Jimmy Butler trade was a long-term building block. Over the past two seasons, even with the knee troubles, LaVine has played his way out of that doubt, getting better at every aspect of his game and proving himself worthy of franchise-player status.

The Bulls also invested a lot, both financially and in future draft picks, in surrounding him with upgraded talent, starting with last deadline's surprise trade for center Nikola Vucevic and continuing in the offseason with big deals for Ball, Caruso and DeMar DeRozan. When everyone was healthy earlier this season, the Bulls looked like the best team in the Eastern Conference.

That health is a major caveat going forward, especially with Ball not returning in the original six-to-eight-week timeline after undergoing knee surgery in January and ultimately missing the rest of the season. His knee will no doubt continue to be a major concern. 

LaVine, meanwhile, only missed 15 games this season, playing through the knee issues but visibly wearing down as the season reached the finish line (check the noticeable dropoff in his pre- and post-All-Star efficiency splits). But Wednesday's report about his upcoming knee surgery offered hope that it isn't a degenerative condition that will affect him going forward.

The optics of not paying up to re-sign LaVine after he played much of the year hurt would also be a reputational hit the Bulls organization can't afford to take. In just under two years, Karnisovas and Eversley were able to turn around the perception of a franchise that for two decades had trouble attracting big-time free agents despite playing in the third-biggest market in the country and a highly desirable city.

LaVine was a major part of that effort, helping to recruit DeRozan in free agency. The previous front-office group was widely distrusted around the league because of its handling of high-profile stars like Butler and Derrick Rose over the years; the new regime has already erased much of that. If it was to turn around, after LaVine played hurt in a contract year to keep them in the playoff hunt, and not hold up its end of the bargain, all that newly built goodwill would fly out the window. 

The Boston Celtics made that mistake with Isaiah Thomas in 2017, trading him for Kyrie Irving after Thomas had put up an All-NBA season for them on a bad hip. That stuck with players and agents around the league, with Anthony Davis' father saying in 2019 that his son didn't want to be traded to Boston because of its handling of Thomas. 

LaVine, by the way, is a fellow client of Rich Paul and Klutch Sports, who also represents Ball, the Bulls' second-biggest free agent of last summer. Is it really worth risking relations with one of the league’s most influential agencies?

The cost of keeping LaVine, even at a max, is less than it would have been had he made an All-NBA team. He won't qualify for a super-max, which would have paid him even more. The over $40 million per year he's expected to make on a new deal is more than double his last contract, a well-below-market annual salary of $19.5 million. 

Is that a lot for an athletic guard with knee issues? Sure. But that's the going rate for stars, and the Bulls don't really have a way of getting another one if they let him walk. They already pushed all their chips in for DeRozan and Vucevic, and this core showed considerable promise earlier in the season before the injuries. If they don't bring back LaVine, and pay him whatever it costs, they might as well just blow it up and rebuild. Spoiler: There won't be much of an appetite to do that just one year after they completely overhauled the roster for the first respectable team they've fielded in five years.

The Bulls are far from being in a great place, as the second half of the season and the playoffs have shown. The front office will have to make some hard decisions this offseason about Vucevic (going into the final year of his contract) and youngsters Patrick Williams and Coby White. One decision that should be easy is keeping LaVine, even at a high price.