Is Zach Lavine Worth a Max Contract?
It was during a February 3, 2017 regular season contest against the Detroit Pistons where Zach LaVine’s future was drastically altered. By then he was already a full-time starter and still part of the Minnesota Timberwolves, though that would be the last game he would play in a Wolves uniform. After landing badly on his left knee, LaVine suffered a season-ending torn ACL and would not be in uniform for the start of the 2017-18 campaign.
As he recovered, he was traded to the Chicago Bulls alongside Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen in the 2017 draft-night deal that brought Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. LaVine eventually made his Bulls debut and went on to play 24 games this past season. His numbers, however, did not resemble the productivity the combo guard showed during his last season with the Timberwolves.
With LaVine headed into restricted free agency in an offseason where few teams have enough cap space to spend on newcomers, can he realistically get a max contract offer from the Bulls or from any other team?
Long story short, the answer is very likely a no. There are several factors that lead us to that idea. First, as stated above, most teams will have virtually no cap space to sign him. He hits the restricted free agency (RFA) market along with the likes of Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, and Aaron Gordon while facing uncertainty on how the market will treat him or his RFA peers.
Teams are obviously interested in LaVine, but after a disastrous 2016 offseason that saw teams giving away money just to find themselves in the luxury tax zone two seasons later, with squads far away from contending with the league’s super teams, organizations are as hesitant as ever to pay big contracts to unproven stars. This is by no means a way of discrediting LaVine, but his numbers post-injury are certainly not max contract worthy in today’s market.
Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets recently agreed to a max contract worth approximately $146 million. But Jokic is an elite big man passer with a reliable jump shot and the leader of the Nuggets’ offense. He runs the fastbreak like few big men can and delights fans and teammates alike with pinpoint passes. He is their franchise star. Over 24 games with the Bulls, LaVine shot 38% from the floor with a mere effective field goal percentage of 44. This is obviously not a big enough sample size and the circumstances are much different than they were in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves had a young trio of stars in LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins. Playing alongside two back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners meant LaVine was not a protagonist in every game, but instead a solid spot up shooter and slasher. In Chicago, he is now the leader of the pack and is also forced to create his own shot. For instance, 77% of LaVine’s made three-pointers in Minnesota came off assists, compared to only 48%of them as a Bull per Basketball Reference.
His shot selection was very questionable at times, as he attempted more mid-range shots than he used to in Minnesota, but teams should hope this is a consequence of his transition from the third option to the first. Even though LaVine is no longer a full-time point guard (he played 89% of his minutes at shooting guard this season), he still averaged three assists per game while only playing 27 minutes each night; he also had career-worst 1.67 assist-to-turnover ratio. These are not the numbers you would like from your star backcourt player, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt as he transitions into a protagonist role. His usage rate in Chicago was up to 30%; the highest usage rate he had recorded in Minnesota was only 23%.
Another questionable aspect of his game is defense. While teammates play a big part in how players are ranked defensively, LaVine has never been a household-name defender. This Bulls team he played with over the last season was the worst he ever played with - even worse than his struggling Timberwolves team - so it is up to coach Hoiberg to find a way to engage LaVine and Co. defensively. He has potential at 6-foot-5 with mobile legs. As soon as he becomes a good defender and polishes his offensive game, then we are talking about a max contract guy.
As much as LaVine appeared to struggle coming back from his injury and adjusting to his first option role, there are also positive takeaways from his short stint in Chicago.
He is finding his way to the basket more easily and handling well contact inside the paint. Instead of trying to jump out of the arena with aggressive poster dunk attempts over opponents, LaVine now finds holes in the defense and attacks the basket harder than ever. He attempted 32% of his shots at the rim and converted them at a 55% success rate; once again, that 55% mark is far from his best season at Minnesota (67%), but there is still room to work on shot selection and creating easier shots off backdoor cuts and ball movement. He also got to the foul line 4.5 times per game to go along with a 30% free throw rate, by far career-highs.
With all this said, LaVine’s positives and negatives on and off the court will not be the most important factor in determining his next contract. Instead, the market for his services will be. The Bulls’ front office knows that with few teams having enough cap space to operate as they would like, their shooting guard’s market is still unknown. According to Chicago Tribune, Bulls Executive Vice President John Paxson said:
“Zach will have options. Other teams can talk to him. The market dictates a lot (about) how things go. I think the market has tightened up a little bit the last couple years since the (salary-cap) spike. But we obviously value Zach a lot, and we think he’s a part of our future. We have great faith in his ability. But he has the opportunity to explore things.”
As Paxson said, the market does dictate a lot about how things go. It is pretty clear that the Bulls know LaVine has some decisions to make; Chicago has his Bird Rights and can match any offers from other teams. This has LaVine in an awkward position, because even though the Bulls can offer him a lot of money, Chicago can comfortably wait for any team to sign LaVine to an offer sheet before matching or even making their own offer. And if no team makes an offer, then who knows how much money LaVine will request from the Bulls’ front office to come back.
LaVine has made a couple of references about seeing himself in a Bulls jersey past this offseason. If he really wants to grow as a player alongside young teammates, the Bulls give him a great chance to do so by practically giving him the keys to their offense. And as much as LaVine wants things to work out in the court, he and his agent will also have to figure out off-the-court aspects like his next contract. A max contract is a long shot, but who knows what situation the young shooting guard will find himself in if no other team is willing to pay him what he wants.
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