Monday, June 27, 2022

Zach LaVine free agency: How star guard could fit with Lakers, Blazers, others if he leaves Bulls this summer

Sometimes there’s no right answer when it comes to roster-building. The Chicago Bulls faced such a no-win dilemma last offseason. With the capacity to create meaningful cap space, they had the ability to renegotiate Zach LaVine’s sorely below-market contract and extend him for five seasons. Doing so would have robbed them of the flexibility they’d need to build a winner. History says stars only stay with winning teams. By extending LaVine early, the Bulls may well have been setting themselves up for a trade request down the line. 

So they opened Door No. 2 and found Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. The revamped Bulls held the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference for much of the season, and were it not for injuries, may have advanced deep into the playoffs. It was LaVine’s first trip to the postseason. It might also have spelled the end of LaVine’s time in Chicago. By using their financial flexibility to improve rather than re-sign LaVine, they set him up to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason.

The odds still suggest that he’ll re-sign with the Bulls. LaVine has spoken openly about how underpaid he was on his last deal. Chicago can give him roughly $212 million over five years. Opposing teams will be limited to around $157 million over four. Not many players are willing to turn down $55 million. LaVine might be one of them. According to NBC Sports’ KC Johnson, LaVine remaining in Chicago is no longer considered a certainty. He cited the Lakers, Mavericks, Hawks and Trail Blazers as four rumored destinations.

Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer further added the Spurs as a possible landing spot and reported that some around the league believe that LaVine would prefer to be his team’s primary scorer. DeRozan was among the best clutch players in basketball last season, but his isolation game often rendered LaVine a spectator in late-game situations.

All of this adds up to suggest that at the very least, the Bulls are going to have some fierce competition here. So let’s take a look at what the field can offer LaVine. Who are the realistic suitors here? How can they carve out the space needed to sign LaVine, and what other selling points might work in their favor? We’ll start with the five teams listed by Johnson and Fischer.

Los Angeles Lakers

If LaVine wants the ball, the Lakers probably aren’t the team for him. Ask Russell Westbrook what it’s like to try to play point guard next to LeBron James. LaVine, a better shooter and cutter, would be a far cleaner fit, and could function in many of the same ways Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade once did alongside James, but becoming a Laker would fundamentally mean accepting third fiddle status upon arrival. This is LeBron’s team. Anthony Davis was his sidekick on a recent championship run.

But James will turn 38 this season and has been talking about handing off the reins since his Cleveland days with Irving. He doesn’t want to control every facet of his offense anymore, he just needs a worthy co-pilot. LaVine could be that player, and when James eventually leaves or retires, LaVine could take over the primary ball-handler for the NBA‘s most famous brand. That would appeal to almost any player. It’s likely especially tempting to a UCLA alum. That LaVine is represented by Klutch Sports only deepens the Laker ties. There would be short-term sacrifices here, but joining the Lakers would set LaVine up to compete for championships and raise his league-wide profile substantially.

That is, if he can actually get to Los Angeles. The Lakers cannot create max space. It literally is not possible with their current star duo. James and Davis will combine to make $82.5 million next season. Even if the Lakers cleared every other contract off of their books, the projected cap is just $122 million, and empty roster spots carry incomplete roster charges at the rookie minimum. The most space the Lakers could possibly create is around $30 million, and frankly, even getting there would be functionally impossible. Getting off of Westbrook alone would be a herculean task.

A sign-and-trade is more plausible, but only slightly. The Lakers could, in theory, send the Bulls their unprotected first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to nab LaVine. They’d have to send Westbrook to the Bulls or a third party to match LaVine’s salary, but that gets slightly messy on Chicago’s end because of base-year compensation issues. Essentially, LaVine would only count for half of his presumed max salary as outgoing salary for the Bulls, but Westbrook would count for his full $47.1 million number. In other words, there would need to be some more cap gymnastics to make this work. The Bulls are under no obligation to cooperate with the Lakers. Even if they did, the combination of James, LaVine and Davis, at their maximum salaries, would cost over $119 million. Acquiring a player through a sign-and-trade triggers a hard cap. The projected hard cap number is $155.7 million. That would leave the Lakers less than $37 million to fill their remaining 12 roster spots. We saw this season how important depth is to star-heavy roster.

This is the NBA in the 2020s. If stars want to play together, they tend to make it happen. But given the financial restraints at play here, this can’t be considered especially likely. LaVine would have a far easier time jumping to a cap space team. 

Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers have a much simpler path to LaVine than the Lakers. They can practically create as much cap space as they want. Damian Lillard is their only significant guaranteed contract. Yes, they’d probably like to keep Josh Hart ($13 million, non-guaranteed), Anfernee Simons ($11.8 million cap hold as a restricted free agent) and Jusuf Nurkic ($18 million cap hold as an unrestricted free agent), but all they need to do to create cap space is start renouncing players. If Portland thinks it can get LaVine, it can figure the rest out later.

There are naturally going to be questions here about fit. If Lillard couldn’t win with C.J. McCollum, why could he win with another small guard in LaVine? The answer is… they’d be getting LaVine, in terms of assets, for free. They got quite a few assets in exchange for McCollum. They could then redirect those assets into other players. Imagine if the Lillard-McCollum Blazers had assets as enticing as Simons, Hart or the No. 7 overall pick to offer for veteran support. Lillard and McCollum, defensive issues aside, weren’t really the problem. Their teammates were.

The obstacle here is Lillard’s demigod status in Portland. If LaVine wants top billing, he’s never going to get it with the Blazers. If he can live with that? There’s appeal here, but if he can live with that, there are much quicker ways to get into the championship picture.

Dallas Mavericks

At some point in the somewhat near future, an All-Star is going to look at Luka Doncic and realize he is their ticket to multiple championships. Doncic is in the Western Conference finals with no teammates close to LaVine’s level. Pair the two of them with the 3-and-D infrastructure Dallas has already built and watch the rings roll in.

Like the Lakers, Dallas isn’t close to cap space. The Mavericks are already approaching the luxury tax, but their salary structure is much more manageable than what the Lakers are dealing with. Los Angeles has three max salaries. The Mavericks have one, Doncic. Then they have six players making between $10-20 million. Offloading the $60 million or so it would take to create max cap space still probably isn’t feasible, but it affords them a lot more flexibility in constructing a roster if they are able to construct a sign-and-trade. 

Jalen Brunson would likely be at the center of any such negotiations, either going to Chicago or a third team in another sign-and-trade. Brunson does not have to participate. Dallas can offer picks, though it should be noted that the 2023 selection they owe the Knicks is protected in such a way that Dallas can’t trade any first-rounders until 2027. That’s a solvable problem, though. If they need to unlock more draft capital, they can simply negotiate the removal of the protections on the pick owed to the Knicks next year. That’s a nice metaphor for where the Mavericks stand here. It’s not likely, but it’s workable, at least moreso than it would be for the Lakers. If LaVine forces the issue, it’s downright possible. The same is true of Johnson’s last proposed suitor. 

Atlanta Hawks

LaVine and Young could make a fit work offensively because they’re both strong shooters, but that doesn’t make them ideal partners. Young hoards the ball as much as anyone in the NBA. He does so little without it that he’d become significantly less valuable during the possessions LaVine uses. Defensively, as much as LaVine has improved, they’d still be among the NBA’s worst backcourts. 

Atlanta, like Dallas, is approaching the tax next season, and Young’s All-NBA selection just bumped his salary up to 30 percent of the cap. Danilo Gallinari, guaranteed just $5 million, will likely be waived to save money against the tax line, but with John Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela and Kevin Huerter now on market-value deals, the Hawks are already prohibitively expensive. They’ll only get pricier in the years to come as De’Andre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu become extension-eligible. In that sense, trading for LaVine might actually save the Hawks money. At least his max salary is capped. Paying one max player is usually cheaper than paying three or four sub-max starters. Still, given Atlanta’s poor playoff showing and Young’s presence as a heliocentric offensive star, there would have to be a very strong preexisting relationship between him and LaVine to make a partnership viable. The Hawks don’t really make much sense here.

San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio is further from championship contention than any other team we’ve covered thus far. If LaVine can get past that, the Spurs are a nearly perfect fit. DeJounte Murray is a perfect backcourt partner, a defensive menace that can score, but is better-served as a playmaker. LaVine could take all of the big shots for the Spurs and do it on an up-and-coming roster that can afford to pay him the max without much sacrifice. With some extra draft capital and young talent in their back pocket, it’s not a stretch to suggest that they could go on to trade for another major piece or two down the line.

In that sense, San Antonio makes more sense than it typically would, but players intentionally relocating from a market like Chicago to one as small as San Antonio is still fairly rare. LaMarcus Aldridge signed with the Spurs in 2015, but that team had Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan and was only a year removed from the championship. LaVine would have to believe in the Spurs to an extent the rest of the league doesn’t seem to for them to truly be viable here, but if his goals are to get paid and be the alpha dog? He can do that in San Antonio.

Are there any sleepers to watch here?

Let’s speed-round a couple more possible options here, though it should be noted that at this time, there is no substantial reporting linking LaVine to any of these teams.

  • Like the Hawks, the Miami Heat could use another scorer and some roster consolidation. A trade package built around Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Max Strus would come about as close to fair value as Chicago could hope for, and the Heat are always ready to go big-game hunting.
  • If any general manager is more obsessed with the star hunt than Pat Riley, it’s Daryl Morey. Tyrese Maxey and James Harden are in place, but Morey is the sort of executive to add a star first and ask questions later. If LaVine wants a long-term partnership with Joel Embiid, Philadelphia could create the space by trading Tobias Harris to Oklahoma City before draft night, or perhaps by dangling Maxey to Chicago in a sign-and-trade.
  • Let’s get a bit more creative… as we’ve covered, the Bucks could really stand to get a bit younger alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the Bulls are incredibly thin at the forward spots. Might there be a LaVine-for-Khris Middleton trade worth discussing here? LaVine would give the Bucks the more traditional shot-creating guard they’ve lacked during the Antetokounmpo era, though Milwaukee’s hard-cap concerns would force the Bucks into major offseason concessions elsewhere if they make a sign-and-trade.
  • Time to get really frisky: if the Memphis Grizzlies want it, they have around $20 million in cap space burning a hole in their pocket. They’ll likely use it to retain their own free agents… but if they wanted to pivot the other way and create max space, they could do so by exploring Dillon Brooks or Steven Adams trades. Desmond Bane is younger and cheaper than LaVine, but is having too many young, star guards really a problem? This is a bit ridiculous. LaVine wouldn’t actually join a team with Bane and Ja Morant. But hey, if the Grizzlies were so inclined, they could try to organize a Bane trade to make room for the superior LaVine.

Where do the Bulls figure into all of this?

There are teams listed above that can pay LaVine max money—or at least the external version of it. There are teams listed above that can make him their primary shotmaker. There are teams listed above that can get him into championship contention. Unless LaVine really significantly values the latter over the two formers—and there’s not much indication that he does—there probably isn’t a team out there that comes closer to checking all three boxes than the Bulls. They can offer him the most money. As DeRozan ages, they’ll fairly comfortably be able to shift shots back to him as well. When they were healthy, they were among the best teams in the regular season.

There might be more to this story than we know right now. LaVine might have his heart set on a single team. That team might be the Bulls, but just as they once hesitated to pay Jimmy Butler, they might be afraid to commit to LaVine as well, and if that’s the case, he might be using these leaks as a means of pressuring the Bulls into offering him the max. We just don’t know at the moment. LaVine appears to be open-minded. He’s made it clear since the season ended that he plans to be. But until a team proves capable of coming as close to checking all three boxes as Chicago does, the Bulls should remain the heavy favorites to retain his services.

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