Teams Are Watching the Bulls—and Zach LaVine—Closely Ahead of the Trade Deadline

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusFeatured Columnist IDecember 21, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - DECEMBER 18: Zach LaVine #8 of the Chicago Bulls looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves in the third quarter of the game at Target Center on December 18, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Timberwolves defeated the Bulls 150-126. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
David Berding/Getty Images

For a moment, everything clicked for the Chicago Bulls in their 113-103 win Tuesday night over the Heat in Miami. The team's three stars combined for 74 points, almost as if news of on-court frustrations between stars hadn't engulfed the franchise earlier in the day.

But ending a four-game losing streak with a win over a Miami team missing Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry will only go so far in healing a fractured franchise.

The dysfunction remains, and teams are looking closely at the Bulls as a potential seller ahead of the February 9 trade deadline. While some think DeMar DeRozan or Nikola Vučević could become available, recent events raise the possibility that LaVine may want out.

The Bulls (12-18) remain half a game outside the play-in tournament. A string of wins might get Chicago as far as a first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks or Boston Celtics.

Most executives polled believe a teardown is the way to go in theory, but in the same breath aren't convinced Chicago has the appetite for one.

"The right basketball move is accepting a rebuild, but I don't know that they're willing to do that," one Eastern Conference executive said. "They [face] the sunken-cost fallacy that they gave up Wendell Carter Jr., Franz Wagner (No. 8 in 2021) and this year's pick for Vučević. I don't think they feel like they can justify what they should do, and instead will try to [retool]."

The Athletic's Shams Charania and Darnell Mayberry gave a glimpse at the internal dysfunction centered around LaVine and DeRozan not seeing eye-to-eye, including a note about "one-on-one, face-to-face sitdowns between DeRozan and LaVine."

Shams Charania @ShamsCharania

Inside the Chicago Bulls' concerning dynamics, the franchise and Zach LaVine not seeing eye-to-eye, and the organization's efforts to manage the on-court disconnect with LaVine and DeMar DeRozan — with <a href="https://twitter.com/DarnellMayberry?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@DarnellMayberry</a> at <a href="https://twitter.com/TheAthletic?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheAthletic</a>:<a href="https://t.co/k5dz1z00q8">https://t.co/k5dz1z00q8</a>

The players can downplay the friction, as they did to K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports after last night's game, but their play together over the coming weeks will dictate how the front office proceeds.

Multiple sources took the Athletic story, told from a very LaVine-centric point of view, as an effort by his representation to get the two-time All-Star moved to a new home.

"LaVine never chose Chicago. He was traded there and had his offer sheet [from the Sacramento Kings in 2018] matched," one NBA source said. "He wasn't going to turn away $215 million from the Bulls. No one else had that kind of money to offer."

"Zach's contract was one of those deals that immediately became an eyesore the moment he signed it. He's just not that healthy," the source continued. "I don't know that the Bulls have a real market for him."

Through 26 games, LaVine is averaging 21.7 points on 44.5 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from three-point range—his lowest output dating back to the 2017-18 season.

The guard joined Klutch Sports Group in 2021, which naturally raises the specter of the struggling Los Angeles Lakers making a bid for the star. The Lakers could make a pitch for LaVine and Vučević for Russell Westbrook and 1-2 future first-round picks as compensation.

Many around the league are worried about LaVine's health. He overcame his 2017 ACL injury but underwent offseason arthroscopic surgery last offseason, leading to a few missed games "of scheduled maintenance," per The Athletic.

It's enough to give teams pause, but if Anthony Davis isn't out for too long with a foot injury, the Lakers could be willing to take the risk given their struggles in the Western Conference.

Los Angeles has long monitored the Chicago situation, with DeRozan and Vučević potential targets. LaVine, 27, is a better shooter than DeRozan to complement LeBron James. But would L.A. take on that money even if Klutch urged the move?

Contract and health aside, LaVine would complement the Lakers' two stars with his shooting ability. Both he and DeRozan can score, but LaVine is the better outside shooter.

Not many teams would consider taking on a player dealing with knee issues on such a massive contract. Multiple NBA sources struggled to come up with market value given the circumstances. The same sources agreed if there's a price no one else would pay, the Lakers might be willing, though one didn't think the Buss family would consider that large a contract.

Of course, that speculation could easily be moot. As one agent declared, "[Bulls chairperson Jerry] Reinsdorf isn't helping the Lakers."

If LaVine wants out, Reinsdorf and the Bulls have no obligation to honor any request.

Bulls Have Yet to Shop Their Best Players

The buzz circling the NBA's Winter Showcase in Las Vegas, with most front offices in attendance, is that the Bulls have yet to shop their best players.

DeRozan, 33, is under contract at $27.3 million (with another season at $28.6 million.) Vučević, 32, is an expiring $22.0 million but could be open to an extend-and-trade in the right situation.

While DeRozan has dipped from last year's career-high 27.9 points a game, he's still at 25.9 while actually shooting a slightly improved 50.7 percent from the field (his three-point shooting is down from 35.2 percent to 30.2, but he has never been a prolific outside shooter). DeRozan is older than LaVine, but his contract is nowhere near the same commitment.

At this early stage, finding viable Chicago partners is purely speculation but worthwhile, given the likelihood. For DeRozan, would the Bulls take on Evan Fournier's $18.9 million for 2023-24 if the New York Knicks offered enough young players (Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley, Cam Reddish, etc.) and/or draft compensation?

What about Vučević? Would teams like the Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors or Portland Trail Blazers go after the veteran center?

Outside of the Lakers' interest and given each player's age, the Bulls may not find enough of a return to justify a change of direction.

Advantage of Blowing It Up

The Bulls owe their first-round pick to the Magic for Vučević with top-4 protection. It may already be too late, barring extreme lottery luck, but Chicago can still get in range of the Detroit Pistons (8-25), Charlotte Hornets (8-23) and Houston Rockets (9-21). With players like Victor Wembanyama and Scoot Henderson bringing extraordinary hype to the top of the lottery, this is a good year to have a top pick.

Losing the pick would be a tough pill to swallow regardless, especially if the Bulls don't re-sign Vučević.

"Even if he's coming back at a good price, they shouldn't reinvest in a losing combination [of players]," an NBA source said.

Of course, if they blow it up, tank and the lottery isn't kind, then re-signing Vučević would still be a tough sell for the front office to make to Reinsdorf.

"What they have doesn't work. They went all-in on it, and I don't think small moves change anything for the team," an NBA source said. "They may just be stuck."

"The Bulls looked great to start last season until Lonzo got hurt. He's so critical to that team; they haven't been the same since," a different Eastern Conference executive said.

Ball's status, like the Bulls' path to contention, remains uncertain. Chicago has until February 9 to decide if there's a fix. By then, the chance of keeping this year's pick may be close to nil.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.