Bulls guard Zach LaVine

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Westerlund: How Much Is Bulls' Zach LaVine Worth In Restricted Free Agency?

LaVine's performance down the stretch could create or squander leverage for him.

Cody Westerlund
March 13, 2018 - 10:45 pm

By Cody Westerlund--

CHICAGO (670 The Score) -- Bulls guard Zach LaVine’s last six games have followed a consistent script of inconsistency.

Spliced between three strong games have been three duds in an every-other-contest pattern. In a lackluster loss to the Celtics on March 5, he had four points on 1-of-11 shooting. In an ugly setback to the Pistons last Friday, he had eight points on 3-of-15 shooting.

In the Bulls’ 112-106 loss to the Clippers at the United Center on Tuesday evening, LaVine had 10 points on 3-of-13 shooting.

It was a game that will soon be forgotten. It was also an opportunity missed for LaVine on a night he could’ve carried more of the burden with rookie big man Lauri Markkanen out with back spasms.

As the rebuilding Bulls play out the string, primarily wondering where their lottery pick will fall, an intriguing restricted free agency awaits LaVine, 23, this summer. The Bulls acquired him as the centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade with the Timberwolves last June. That the Bulls were turned off from a trade with the Wolves one year prior, on draft night in June 2016, because LaVine wasn’t on the table spoke volumes about how they regarded him.

That valuation will take center stage this summer. Chicago didn’t acquire LaVine to let him go so soon, and the organization has every intention of bringing him back. At what price is the question.

It’s worth reminding that there are four primary possible outcomes in restricted free agency. LaVine and the Bulls can proactively agree to a new deal. LaVine can sign an offer sheet with another team, and the Bulls can match in a three-day window to retain him. LaVine can sign an offer sheet, and the Bulls can choose to not match it, watching him leave. In the least likely scenario, LaVine could choose to play the 2018-’19 season on the less lucrative $4.4-million qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in summer 2019.

LaVine can command a starting salary up to about $25 million in the first year of a new deal – 25 percent of a salary cap that projects to fall at about $101 million. The Bulls won’t have any intention of paying him that annually. While his centerpiece-of-the-Butler-trade stature provides leverage for LaVine, a frosty market and the mechanics of restricted free agency provide just as much, and probably more, for the Bulls.

Only about one-quarter of the league is projected to have $10 million or more in cap space, per ESPN.com, the Bulls being one of them. High-profile free agents like LeBron James, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins are set to enter free agency. While possible, it remains hard to envision another team giving LaVine a max-contract offer sheet in the economic climate of today’s NBA.

As both sides play their hand in a negotiation, LaVine’s performance will be a stable variable. And that’s why the season’s final month should still matter greatly for him. He has a chance to create or squander more leverage, to make it more difficult or easier for the franchise to take a hard line in negotiations.

The statistics aren’t playing into LaVine’s favor right now. He’s averaging 16.6 points on 38.5 percent shooting overall and 34.5 percent 3-point shooting this season. While plus-minus numbers have their flaws, he entered play Tuesday with a -7.0 mark, the worst on the team. The Bulls have been 7.3 points better in their net rating with LaVine off the floor (-5.4) than with him on it (-12.7) this season, entering Tuesday.

LaVine has also displayed a tendency to get lost in his off-ball defense or not get back quickly enough, which has been a teaching point of coach Fred Hoiberg.

“Transition, that one specifically, it’s something we’ve been working a lot on – is when you don’t get the call, you still have to spring back,” Hoiberg said. “You’re doing your teammates a disservice when you don’t. He’s gotten better at it.”

It’s important to note that LaVine is only 23 games into a return from a torn ACL and rigorous rehab process. Expectations were tempered from the start, with the organization understandably utilizing a cautious approach. LaVine isn’t even expected to be cleared to play in back-to-back games this season, and his friends and family are quick to remind him on the evenings that he struggles that it’s a long road ahead.

“I’ve always been a pretty efficient player,” LaVine said. “I need to get back to that, if it’s 3-point or mid-range or either one. Getting your legs under you and getting your speed back, I think that’s going to help me going into next year. All these games, each one is helping me get back to where I was. It’s frustrating, but I got to take it as a learning lesson every game just to get better.”

So where’s it leave each side as we look ahead? It seems likely that LaVine is a $15-million to $20-million player annually, given that he's one of the Bulls' three foundational pieces but subject to a restricted free agency system that will favor the team. Where he falls in that spectrum depends on how LaVine finishes this season and, of course, the tenor of negotiations.

Whatever is to come, LaVine insists his focus is on the present.

“You can’t think about that,” LaVine said. “I think about each day on the court. Obviously, you got to play well. They expect you to play well. You want to go there and do it for yourself, first off, but regardless, I put the work in. I’m going to let that handle itself when it gets to that point. I got to continue to worry about the Chicago Bulls and each game we play and getting better.”

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.