New head coach Billy Donovan has helped transform a team that was 27th overall in scoring last season (106.8 points a game) to fourth (117.8) despite minimal changes to the roster this offseason. A considerable part of that turnaround stems from career seasons from LaVine and Markkanen.
The team is improved and growing but still doesn't have a winning record. Markkanen will be a restricted free agent this offseason, and LaVine's contract runs only through the 2021-22 season. Both are earning major paydays with their play, but their future in Chicago remains uncertain.
LaVine has made his case as one of the Eastern Conference's top guards this season, as he's averaging a career-high 27.2 points on 50.5 percent shooting and 5.5 assists per game. LaVine is sixth overall in scoring among qualified players, according to NBA.com, trailing only Bradley Beal (34.9) of the Washington Wizards, Kevin Durant (31.3) of the Brooklyn Nets and Joel Embiid (27.3) of the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference.
The 25-year-old LaVine is just entering his prime. The Bulls have him at a discounted rate ($19.5 million both this season and next), but don't expect that to continue for long. Excluding LaVine, the other top-10 scorers in the league will earn an average of $32.7 million next season.
"LaVine has taken a step forward this season," an Eastern Conference executive said. "He's not on the level of a LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but he's a max player."
With that in mind, should the Bulls reinvest in LaVine and Markkanen or cash out on them in trades and focus on building around their younger pieces like Coby White and Patrick Williams?
That decision is up to new executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas, who previously served as the assistant general manager (and later the general manager) of the Denver Nuggets. During his tenure, Denver drafted steals like Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. to build a playoff contender. He may try to mold the Bulls in a similar, patient fashion.
Will he reward Markkanen and LaVine with lucrative long-term deals? Or is it time for the Bulls to distance themselves from their previous front office's decisions?
Zach LaVine: All-Star Level, Discount Price
The $32.7 million average for the best scorers in the league is very close to the $33.7 million starting salary LaVine would be eligible to receive if he were a free agent this upcoming summer, and it's the kind of money he'll expect when the time comes.
That's a significant commitment for a team with a losing record, but that blame shouldn't be put on LaVine's shoulders. The Bulls haven't been competitive for several years because they haven't had the requisite supporting cast or coaching.
If the Bulls want to lock in LaVine before he becomes a free agent, he is only eligible for an extension starting at 120 percent of his salary for the 2021-22 season. That would give him a starting salary of $23.4 million, well below his market value.
However, the Bulls can get around that limitation this offseason by using part of their projected cap space to renegotiate LaVine's salary to the max and then extend his deal. LaVine will qualify for such an arrangement this offseason because he signed a four-year deal in 2018 (technically an offer sheet with the Sacramento Kings that the Bulls chose to match).
The Bulls would need roughly $14.2 million in cap space to give LaVine a raise (starting with the 2021-22 season) that would pay him approximately $151.7 million over four years. Although they would be using some of their financial flexibility on him instead of adding additional talent, they would no longer have to worry about losing him as an unrestricted free agent in 2022.
And if the Bulls are willing to commit to LaVine long term, the young shooting guard would be equally dedicated to producing for the organization, per those close to the guard.
If the Bulls aren't, they need to consider the trade market as a serious option. LaVine's value may be peaking now, before he's in the final year of his contract.
Most of the top attainable players are already off the market with James Harden now on the Brooklyn Nets Nets, Victor Oladipo on the Houston Rockets and Giannis Antetokounmpo (via extension) and Jrue Holiday with the Milwaukee Bucks. LaVine will be a prized trade target if the Bulls decide to remake their roster.
Markkanen's timeline is more immediate. As a restricted free agent after this season, he'll take up $20.2 million of the Bulls' cap room until they either sign him to a new deal, match another team's offer sheet or let him go.
Per K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago, the Bulls "were roughly $4 million apart for the starting salary figure in the first year of a multiyear deal" when Markkanen was eligible for an extension before the current season.
Through eight games, Markkanen has put up career highs in points (19.4), field-goal percentage (49.1 percent) and three-point percentage (39.7 percent). In comparison, the Washington Wizards gave Davis Bertans a five-year, $80 million deal this offseason after he averaged 15.4 points on 43.4 percent shooting overall and 42.4 percent from deep last season.
Again, it's a question of commitment. If the Bulls value Markkanen long term, they'll take care of him after the season. If not, they have until the March 25 trade deadline to make a deal.
Experts Chime In
Should the Bulls double down on their existing roster? A current Western Conference executive isn't convinced.
"You never want to invest in a core that just isn't good enough," he said. "You kind of see that with [the Orlando Magic]. You might be good for a fringe playoff spot here and there, but what are you working towards?"
After canvassing around the league, there's little consensus on what the Bulls will do with LaVine and Markkanen. Karnisovas has yet to establish his personality as a top basketball executive. The only significant personnel decision he's made outside of the coaching hire was selecting Williams with the No. 4 overall pick in November's draft (B/R's Jonathan Wasserman gave Williams an "A" grade after his first month in the NBA).
"[He] doesn't have a choice but to pay LaVine. Unless they think they can get a Harden-type deal for him (which they can't), they have to build around him and Lauri," a former Western Conference executive said. "And Coby [White]. The team still sucks, but you have to hope Coby and Patrick grow, and you get another lottery pick that hits."
The answer may depend on what value the Bulls can get in return.
The New York Knicks are currently under the NBA's salary cap, have all of their first-round picks and two from the Dallas Mavericks, along with several young players who could be available (Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina, Dennis Smith Jr., etc.).
The Philadelphia 76ers can deal up to two of their next three first-round picks but would probably need to start with Tyrese Maxey (along with Danny Green for salary-matching purposes) to interest the Bulls.
The San Antonio Spurs also have all of their first-round picks and young talents like Devin Vassell, Keldon Johnson, Drew Eubanks and Lonnie Walker IV. Houston would need to give up some of its recent draft haul from the Harden trade. Karnisovas' history with the Nuggets shouldn't be discounted if Denver wanted to talk trades, either.
The market for Markkanen, a 7-foot, three-point-shooting power forward, is believed to be healthy, especially given his low salary this season at $6.7 million. Still, Chicago would need significant future considerations to part with either of its two best players.
"The Bulls may not have significant pressure to get a deadline deal done because Lauri is restricted and Zach is under contract, but if they have already decided that this isn't a future worth investing in, they should be looking for options sooner than later," the current executive said.
The Path Ahead
If the Bulls let all of their free agents go (except Markkanen) and restructure LaVine's contract to the max, they would still have in the neighborhood of $20-30 million in available cap space. The exact numbers would depend on Markkanen's new starting salary and their draft position, but they do have the flexibility to keep their two stars and add to their core.
The contracts of Otto Porter Jr., Cristiano Felicio, Garrett Temple and Denzel Valentine all expire after this season. Thaddeus Young ($14.2 million next season) and Tomas Satoransky ($10 million) could be powerful trade chips at the deadline or around the 2021 NBA draft. Together, they are guaranteed just a combined $11 million for 2021-22, which can be stretched at $2.2 million per season over five years (if waived before the end of the 2020-21 calendar year).
If they're willing to let Markkanen leave as a restricted free agent and are ready to gamble on LaVine in free agency in 2022 or plan to trade him down the line, the Bulls would near $54 million in cap space this summer.
The Markkanen decision is looming; LaVine isn't far behind. Karnisovas' vision for the Bulls' future will indicate how busy they'll be in late March at the trade deadline.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.