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Chicago Bulls would be foolish to pay Zach LaVine a max deal

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With the 2017-18 regular season less than a week in the books, the Chicago Bulls should be pleased with some of the young pieces going forward. Zach LaVine, who returned in January from an ACL injury, was one player who showed promise.

The flashes of athleticism in a short 24-game stint were enough to make any Bulls fan excited about the 23-year-old’s star potential. And seeing as he was a key part in the Jimmy Butler trade, there is no doubt the front office wants to re-sign LaVine this summer.

But paying him star money? No way!

The word “potential” seems to stick to LaVine. His athleticism, explosiveness at the rim and improved 3-point shooting stroke make him a “potential” star.

Calling him a superstar or even a budding All-Star is a stretch at this point. Those are the guys that deserve the desirable max contract.

Understanding all the nuances of the NBA salary cap and contracts requires a minor in accounting. But the max contract is pretty simple to grasp. It allows a player to sign for a maximum portion of the salary cap depending on his time spent in the league. Below is the annual salary a player can earn based on time accrued:

Years in League Maximum Annual Salary*
Six or fewer** $25.5 million or 25% of team cap
Seven to nine $30.6 million or 30% of team cap
10 or more $35.7 million or 35% of team cap

*Maximum annual salary is determined on whichever figure is higher. Figures are based on 2017-18 NBA salary cap numbers.
**Derrick Rose Rule allows players with 6 or fewer seasons to receive salary at 30% of cap if player is voted to start in two All-Star Games, named to an All-NBA Team twice or wins MVP.

Based on LaVine’s accrued time, he would be eligible for a contract valued at about $146 million over five years, which is about $29 million a year annually. That number seems too high for a guy who hasn’t been to an All-Star game or sniffed the playoffs.

In limited action with the Bulls, LaVine averaged just over 16 points a game, which was good enough to lead the team that lacked a consistent scoring punch. However, he shot a career-low 38 percent from the field, even struggling to finish near the rim.

Yes, the four-year guard had plenty of rust to shake off after missing almost a year from injury. But there were some moments that made you think twice about his star potential.

One of the most glaring issues was his defense. LaVine has never been lauded for locking down opposing players, which was probably a reason why former coach Tom Thibodeau was willing to part with him last summer. There were many instances where he would have massive brainfarts, losing track of guys consistently on seemingly every defensive possession.

In many cases, max players are top defenders or at least respectable ones who can flip a switch at a moment’s notice. Of the 15 active players making $25 million or more a year, only DeMar DeRozan and Carmelo Anthony are viewed as major defensive liabilities.

Another factor against securing LaVine to a big-money contract is his lack of chemistry with Kris Dunn. Many observers, including Vincent Goodwill from NBC Sports Chicago, have noted how the two don’t mesh on the court yet.

In limited action, it was obvious that both players needed the ball in order to make plays. Unfortunately, neither showed the ability or desire to play off the ball when paired in the backcourt, and the flow of Fred Hoiberg’s space-and-pace offense stalled as a result.

With more time together, they might be able to find a rhythm. After all, a 12-game sample size is way too small to reach sweeping conclusions. However, you can’t guarantee max money with a question like this looming into next season.

LaVine is a restricted free agent, meaning the Bulls have the right to match any offer a team throws his way. The front office most likely won’t be the ones offering LaVine a max deal off the bat. Despite what some fans think, both John Paxson and Gar Forman are smart enough to know the franchise benefits from locking up LaVine to a team-friendly deal that still pays out a solid annual salary.

Signing him to a three or four-year contract worth roughly $15-18 million a year with a player option not only gives him a respectable pay raise, but it also allows him the flexibility to seek more money while still in his prime. And the Bulls would have the ability to move on sooner if his potential doesn’t pan out.

However, there are plenty of GMs around the league that make questionable decisions. Aggressive teams like the Dallas Mavericks or Brooklyn Nets, who both could add a max contract with a few cost-cutting moves, might be crazy enough to offer a max deal to LaVine.

If LaVine and his agent think they can do better than $18 million a year, let them test the market. And if a team is crazy enough to pay a good, but not great, player near max money, then don’t hesitate to say goodbye.

In fact, the Bulls would be wiser to pay for his plane ticket out of town than match any ridiculous contract offers. While he is young and full of potential, overpaying for his services now could be detrimental down the road, especially for a team that can be in prime position to nab a big player by the summer of 2019 or 2020.

While LaVine was a key piece to the Butler trade, banking on the unknown is dangerous. At this point, he looks like a future All-Star who could emerge as a solid second or third option on a contending team. But no one is sure of that yet.

That’s why the Bulls should avoid any temptation to overpay LaVine this offseason.

Matt graduated with a Bachelor's degree of journalism from DePaul University in 2011 and currently works in the digital marketing world as a content manager. He's been a Chicago sports fan and almanac since childhood, and he has explainable superstitions leading up to Bears games. Aside from sports, Matt also shares a deep love for family, friends, faith, theater and creative writing.