When the Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler last year, the idea of acquiring guard Zach LaVine was a big reason they pulled the trigger. With free agency less than a week away, it’s not guaranteed that he’ll return.
According to ESPN’s Nick Friedell, there is growing doubt that they will automatically match a max-level offer to keep LaVine. That notion would’ve seemed ridiculous almost a year ago.
While he showed flashes of his trademark athleticism and scoring pop, his 24-game stint with the Bulls was mostly inconsistent. Some of it was rust, which is expected when coming back from a significant knee injury. But there were many moments where he struggled defensively and couldn’t play effectively with Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, albeit in limited action.
Shortly after the season concluded, we argued why paying him a max contract would be foolish. His poor defensive skills and unproven chemistry with the rest of the team’s core doesn’t really warrant making $20 million or more a year for the next five seasons. Especially when coming off a major injury.
However, other teams could be desperate enough to offer a young impact player like LaVine something close to a max contract. Since he’s a restricted free agent, the Bulls would have the right to match any offer sheet he signs.
If they choose not to match a bloated offer sheet, not all hope is lost. Here are some viable replacements the Bulls could explore this offseason.
No. 1: Rodney Hood
Rodney Hood was averaging just under 17 points per game with the Utah Jazz before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in February. Despite his ability to score in bunches, Hood racked up less minutes as the season grew on due to his poor play on defense. He found himself firmly planted on the bench during the playoffs, earning four DNPs during the Eastern Conference Finals.
Hood and LaVine are somewhat similar. Both are athletic players that find ways to score near the basket or from the outside, and they also are major defensive liabilities. While LaVine is almost two years younger, Hood is 25 and still has some upside. And given his falling out with the Cavaliers, he could be a cheap replacement too.
The Bulls might be able to sign him to a one or two-year deal worth $15 million a year. This not only gives Hood a chance to audition for a bigger contract before he hits his prime, but it also allows the organization a chance to audition him as a viable piece going forward. And while he’s a restricted free agent, there isn’t expected to be much resistance from the Cavaliers.
No. 2: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is expected to draw interest on the secondary market once the top free agents break the bank. He’s a prototypical three-and-D shooting guard and one of the more underrated players in the league. The 25-year-old has averaged 12 points per game and shot 34.5 percent from the 3-point line through his five-year career.
While Caldwell-Pope isn’t close to becoming a superstar any time soon, he would be a solid fit for the next couple of seasons. He’s entering the prime years of his career, and the Bulls could benefit from his production. Say he’s productive enough to garner All-Star consideration, then the front office can use him as a tradeable asset in a package to acquire a star player or draft capital.
The only downside is that he could be costly. Last offseason, he rolled the dice and came up snake eyes. After reportedly turning down a five-year, $80 million contract to stay with the Detroit Pistons, Caldwell-Pope never received a max-level offer and ended up agreeing to a one-year, $18 million prove-it deal with the Los Angeles Lakers.
If the breaking point for LaVine is $20 million a year, would they be okay giving Caldwell-Pope a four-year deal worth about $18 million annually? The Bulls not only would get a more than capable replacement, but they also would have a contract that could be attractive to move if they choose to pursue bigger names down the road.
No. 3: Will Barton
From a pure athletic standpoint, Will Barton is a major downgrade from LaVine. However, Barton still has been very productive the last 3.5 seasons with the Denver Nuggets. Last year, he averaged a career-high 15.7 points, 4.1 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game while shooting 37 percent from 3-point range. He also is a solid defender capable of guarding both wing spots seamlessly.
At 27, he’s the perfect type of stop-gap solution. Unlike Hood and Caldwell-Pope, Barton has most likely reached his ceiling in the league. But he still is a reliable option, and the Bulls still need to spend some money this offseason somewhere. He reportedly rejected a four-year, $42 million offer in October to stay with Nuggets. The Bulls would probably have to offer a four-year deal in the neighborhood of $50-55 million.
That contract wouldn’t be very risky either. A deal averaging somewhere between $12-14 million a season would be cheaper than any contract you’d have to offer or match for LaVine. And like the scenario painted with Caldwell-Pope, it could be attractive to move down the road if the Bulls are looking to shed cap space for All-Stars.
No. 4: Veteran Leader
John Paxson loves veteran leadership. He’s mentioned multiple times how much he values Robin Lopez, and he has a track record of signing or trading for mentors during his 15-year tenure at the helm. Believe it or not, grabbing a veteran might not be a bad route if the Bulls let LaVine walk.
There is a recent trend in the NBA of signing savvy yet productive veterans to hefty, single-season deals. Last year, J.J. Redick inked a one-year, $23 million contract with the Philadelphia 76ers. While he’s expressed interest in staying with the Sixers, they could be strapped for cash in pursuit of building a superteam for LeBron James.
If that’s the case, the Bulls could offer Redick a similar type of single-season contract. At 33, he averaged a career-high 17.1 points per game and still is one of the best pure shooters in the league. If Redick is looking for more money or immediately returns to Philly, there are similar veterans that could fill the shooting guard role.
Avery Bradley, 27, has always been a highly regarded three-and-D guard during his seven-year career. However, his dip in production last season could make him a realistic option on a one- or two-year contract. Another name to keep an eye on is Jamal Crawford, who opted out of his contract last week with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Even at 38, he continues to be a highly productive player.
Signing Crawford to an affordable one-year contract might still seem crazy given his age. But the Bulls would get a veteran mentor who can still average close to double digits in points and shoot nearly 35 percent from 3-point range. And if they fall out of the postseason contention quickly, he could be traded to a contender for a package that includes a first-round pick and an expiring contract.
No. 5: A Current Bull
If the market gets too out of whack, the Bulls might be forced to plug someone from their current roster into LaVine’s starting spot. Justin Holiday might have started 72 games at the small forward position last season, but he is a natural shooting guard. He could slide into that role while either Denzel Valentine or rookie Chandler Hutchison get the bulk of the minutes at small forward.
If the Bulls feel compelled to move Holiday’s contract this summer, Valentine and Antonio Blakeney are potential options at the two-guard spot as well. The front office also is expected to try to re-sign David Nwaba. While he’s not much of scoring threat, Nwaba proved to be a great high-energy guy that can run on the fastbreak and play suffocating defense.
Why not Randle, Parker or Gordon?
Julius Randle, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon are three young restricted free agents expected to get major attention this summer. So why not pursue any of them this offseason?
Each missed the list because they’re expected to cash in when the secondary market gets rolling. Also, all three play their best at the power forward position. With Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, Bobby Portis and Robin Lopez expected to get heavy minutes at the four and five spots, they don’t make sense given the roster’s current makeup.
If the Bulls end up dealing Portis and Lopez to acquire other assets in the offseason, then Randle, Parker or Gordon could be worth exploring. Of course, it would have to be at the right price.