Here’s a prime example of why restricted free agency is so often described as Russian Roulette: One wild offer from a suitor with nothing to lose can force an incumbent team into a brutal lose-lose proposition.
The Bulls have reportedly matched the Kings’ four-year, $78 million contract offer to restricted free agent guard Zach LaVine on Friday. While the Bulls had three days to mull the decision, reports quickly surfaced that they would retain the 23-year-old LaVine, best known as a two-time Slam Dunk Contest champion. In his first season in Chicago, LaVine averaged 16.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG and 3 APG while shooting just 38.3% overall and 34.1% from deep in 24 games after returning from an ACL injury.
There were no good choices here. Matching meant paying top dollar for a one-dimensional scoring guard with limited feel as a playmaker for others, a long track record as a minus defender, and a major knee injury in his recent past. Allowing LaVine to walk would have meant parting with the headlining player in the 2017 Jimmy Butler trade with the Timberwolves, while forfeiting a key piece of the Bulls’ unspectacular young core.
Chicago concluded that substantially overpaying LaVine, a 2014 lottery pick, and hoping for the best was less painful than taking another step back in a multi-year rebuilding effort. Indeed, this decision will spare them renewed second-guessing of the Butler trade and save them from needing to locate and cultivate a lead scoring option to help improve a 28th-ranked offense. Given their stripped-down payroll, their limited talent on-hand, and their inability to compete for top free agents, the Bulls would have been hard-pressed to find an excuse for letting LaVine walk. They’ve got to spend their money on somebody.
Even so, this is a bitter pill to swallow, especially during a summer in which many free agents settled for short-term contracts and smaller salaries. LaVine’s contract would have been right at home during the summer of 2016’s spending spree. This summer, however, he pulled in one of the biggest deals, topped only by perennial All-Stars and Magic forward Aaron Gordon.
In the case of Gordon, another restricted free agent who received $84 million over four years, it’s possible to envision a path of stardom, or at least productive and consistent two-way play. With LaVine, that level of utility is more difficult to picture because he’s made little progress when it comes to his defensive awareness and impact. In each of his four seasons, his teams have performed better defensively—sometimes far better—with him off the court than with him on. His shaky attention to detail, lack of physicality and tendency to drift are all killers.
Zach LaVine Defensive Rating:
• 2014-15: Off: 107 | On: 112.4 | Minus-5.4
• 2015-16: Off: 103.6 | On: 109.5 | Minus-5.9
• 2016-17: Off: 108.3 | On: 110.1 | Minus-1.8
• 2017-18: Off: 107.9 | On: 114.8 | Minus-6.9
At present, LaVine isn’t nearly effective enough as an overall offensive player to compensate for his massive defensive shortcomings. Although he can create a shot, pull up from three-point range and has improved his ability to get to the free-throw line, he remains an inefficient scorer who hasn’t mastered the art of consistently getting his teammates involved. As a microwave scorer off the bench, LaVine could potentially help a lot of teams. As a lead scoring option paid nearly $20 million per year, he makes sense for virtually no one.
Chicago had to be hoping that concerns over LaVine’s injury and his unfinished game would cool the market for him in a tight cap environment. Instead, the lottery-bound Kings inexplicably backed up the Brinks truck and got lucky that the Bulls matched. How, exactly, LaVine would have fit in a backcourt with fellow sieves De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield is a mystery only Vlade Divac can explain.
If the Bulls weren’t in quite such a desperate spot, they would have been wise to let the Kings chase LaVine’s narrowing shot at one-way stardom. Unfortunately, they didn’t have that luxury and they had to cut the check through gritted teeth.