When reports circulated Friday night that the Chicago Bulls will match the Sacramento Kings’ offer sheet for Zach LaVine, the clock started ticking faster for John Paxson and Gar Forman.
Many Bulls fans will argue that the clock started years ago for them. Given their track record following the 2011-12 season alone, the growing pessimism is warranted. And matching a four-year, $78 million offer sheet added more pressure for a front office in dire need of building a contender.
Paying $18-$20 million annually to an athletic yet inconsistent shooting guard is the type of move that will either pay huge dividends or end up costing the duo their jobs.
LaVine, 23, has plenty of upside to his game. No one doubts that his first step is one of the quickest in the league, and he still boasts plenty of leaping ability and explosiveness despite coming off an ACL injury in 2017.
However, there are plenty of warts in his game that give you pause. Some of them were on display during his 24-game stint last season.
Sure, judging LaVine from a sample size after returning from a devastating knee injury isn’t fair. But these red flags date back to his time with the Minnesota Timberwolves. And they’re the kind you can’t ignore.
Efficiency is key when weeding out stat stuffers among the top players in the league. When compared to other guards in the NBA, LaVine’s player efficiency rating (PER) is mediocre at best.
- 2017-18 season: 14.65 PER (26th at position)
- 2016-17 season: 14.69 PER (18th at position)
- 2015-16 season: 14.34 PER (24th at position)
- 2014-15 season: 11.31 PER (67th at position)
The same inefficiency is apparent when looking at his true shooting percentage, which measures a player’s shooting efficiency on field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws.
- 2017-18 season: 49.9 TS percentage (93rd at position)
- 2016-17 season: 57.6 TS percentage (19th at position)
- 2015-16 season: 54.8 TS percentage (26th at position)
- 2014-15 season: 51.5 TS percentage (46th at position)
Perhaps the most notable flaw in his game is his porous defense. Bulls assistant coach Jim Boylen, who’s lauded as a defensive guru, told Mike McGraw of the Daily Herald this season that LaVine’s biggest flaw is not staying locked in when guarding off the ball.
These lapses have been a problem over the course of his four-year career. LaVine has had many instances where he’s shown a lack of focus on that end of the floor, allowing his man to roam free for open looks.
His defensive struggles and efficiency could improve with age, and there were signs that he was getting better in 2017 before the injury. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence to show he’s completely turned a corner.
Those red flags don’t seem to justify LaVine’s substantial pay raise.
The Bulls cap situation is still very healthy heading into the 2019 and 2020 offseasons. Even with LaVine back in the fold, the team will have close to $45 million in cap space after next season.
So why is their decision to match the Kings’ offer sheet risky?
Barring any unforeseen trades, the front office has taken themselves out of the running to add two max free agents in the summer of 2019. In a league where players like to pair up with other stars, this makes a free agency pitch difficult. With names like Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, DeMarcus Cousins and former Bull Jimmy Butler available, not having two max slots could be costly.
For instance, if Butler and Irving actually want to pair up on a team next year, LaVine’s salary makes the Bulls an unlikely landing spot. Adding two major free agents seems like a long shot anyway given GarPax’s inability to land just one marquee player during their tenure. That doesn’t mean they should stop trying.
By choosing to match, the Bulls are banking on LaVine to vault to All-Star status. Even if he stays a below-average defender, he can no longer be just an athletic scorer who averages 16 points per game by casting up a ton of shots.
His scoring output and efficiency need to put him at or near the top-tier among shooting guards. Asking him to parallel the likes of other young All-Star caliber guards like Thompson, Butler or Devin Booker shouldn’t be too much to ask.
The Bulls also are lumping more pressure onto Lauri Markkanen to become an All-Star power forward next season. Markkanen showed plenty of encouraging signs during his rookie year, but the team can’t afford a sophomore slump or status quo season.
If the Bulls finally haul in the big fish free agent, they need LaVine and Markkanen to hit their max potential and make Chicago an enticing destination. Unfortunately, that scenario is full of uncertainties.
If neither can live up to their lofty expectations, the Bulls won’t be an attractive team next summer or in the future. Anthony Davis, who is expected to opt out of his contract in 2020, would most likely pass on the possibility of coming home.
And if the New Orleans Pelicans decide to trade Davis before then, LaVine’s contract might not be attractive enough to move. Teams like the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers would have more appealing assets to offer if LaVine doesn’t step up to All-Star status.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers how signing young, unproven players can come back to bite you. They went on a spending spree in 2016, matching a mega offer sheet for Allen Crabbe, re-signing Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless to large deals and inking Evan Turner to a beefy contract.
None of those players ever grew into All-Stars or even high-end roles players. The moves proved costly, taking them out of the running to acquire big name players to partner with All-Star guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
What’s even worse is that each contract has been a pain to move. While the Blazers were able to coax the Brooklyn Nets into taking Crabbe off their hands, all they got in return was cap relief and a journeyman in Andrew Nicholson. As for Leonard, Harkless and Turner, their contracts are completely untradable.
While LaVine’s situation probably won’t be as detrimental to what the Blazers experienced, it illustrates how not weighing the cost-benefit can delay championship aspirations.
Sadly, GarPax can’t afford delays to build a title contender. The clock is ticking.