For Bulls and Zach LaVine, it’s championship or bust after max extension

Zach LaVine’s new contract with the Chicago Bulls: a day late, but not a dollar short.

On the second day of the free hand, the two-time All-Star guard agreed to sign a five-year, $215.2 million extension with the Bulls, first reported by The Athletics Shine Charania. Year Five is a player option for a whopping $49 million. League rules prohibit LaVine from signing the deal until 12:01 p.m. ET Wednesday, but the Bulls can breathe a sigh of relief after completing the biggest item on their offseason to-do list.

LaVine has emerged as one of the most electrifying scorers in the NBA over the past five seasons with the Bulls. He has averaged 24.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists and a steal in 272 Chicago contests. His efficiency over that range—a 46.8/38.9/83.3 shot split—propels him into elite company. It became an obvious choice for the Bulls to keep LaVine, the last player left from Jimmy Butler’s trade to Minnesota.

The question for LaVine and the Bulls has always been at what cost. LaVine made it clear that he intends to take home every penny he feels he deserves. The cops consistently made clear their intention to do whatever it takes to continue the marriage. When the news finally broke late Friday morning, it came as no surprise that a maximum legal contract was put on the table, the largest in franchise history.

Here’s what overtime means for the Bulls and LaVine, plus additional thoughts on Day 2 of the free hand.

Signing LaVine ensures the stability of the franchise

Gone are the dark days, the seasons filled with shock and awe, the feathers stuck to simulate the NBA Draft Lottery.

LaVine gives the Bulls a legitimate box office hit, a highlight waiting to happen and someone who can take over a game at any time. With him, the Bulls will always field a competitive squad. Others will want to join him. Injuries aside, the Bulls shouldn’t have another 20- or 30-win season in the LaVine era. They may not remain a playoff team, but LaVine’s presence will keep them on the cusp.

The question, of course, is how the bulls, now hitting the tax threshold, will improve. The task will not be any easier next summer when Patrick Williams and Ayo Dosunmu are eligible for extensions. But the bulls may find that out at a later date. LaVine’s re-signing was a franchise-stabilizing move that now keeps Chicago competitive while giving the Bulls an All-Star and a long-term asset to build on.

Who knows what Plan B would have been if LaVine hadn’t agreed to re-sign? Some may argue that Plan B came about when DeMar DeRozan came on board last summer. Others might foolishly claim that the bulls should have let LaVine run or (less foolishly) explored sign-and-trade options and taken a different route. Any of the scenarios might have forced the bulls to step back, which would certainly have been a disappointment after the bulls have done everything to get to this point.

There’s no harm in betting on LaVine. That’s what the cops did by giving him the top dollar. They rewarded him for past performance but also invested in him for future gains.

LaVine’s Max is a must-win contract

LaVine surpassed each of his first two NBA contracts.

He easily surpassed the approximately $10 million he made from his rookie contract with Minnesota. The former 13th overall champion improved in each of his first four seasons before a cruciate ligament rupture derailed his progress. He then turned the Kings’ four-year $78 million offer sheet into a sweetheart deal for the Bulls after they were matched. LaVine went on to become a two-time All-Star, Olympic gold medalist, and respected assassin across the league.

He’ll have a hard time topping this deal. There’s only one option for LaVine — to lead the Bulls to their seventh championship.

Nothing LaVine makes individually matters more. The benchmark for LaVine is now team success, not regular-season honors, but post-season hardware. That’s what LaVine signed up for when he signed his name on that eye-catching dotted line. What will be decided over the lifespan of LaVine’s lavish new deal is whether he’s a winner.

LaVine just turned 27 and is in the prime of his career. With the Bulls, too, he’s been improving year on year, proof he’ll continue to do so well into his late 20s. But the pressure is on LaVine like never before. He’s now getting paid like the player he always thought he was. Now he has to appear like this. Now he has to win.

Derrick Jones Jr. agrees to a new deal

He came to Chicago on a year-long lease, a necessary purchase for the Bulls to earn a first-round pick from Portland as part of the three-team trade that sent Lauri Markkanen to Cleveland last summer. Before injuries and COVID-19 concerns set in, Jones was buried on the bench. But once he started getting regular minutes, Jones established himself as a versatile forward who worked surprisingly well as a small-ball center.

The Bulls rewarded him with a two-year, $6.6 million contract extension, as first reported by The Athletics Charania.

Jones earned respect and perhaps boosted his future prospects when he played through a broken right index finger he sustained in January. The injury was expected to see Jones out for six to eight weeks. He returned after only 2 1/2 weeks.

From the Bulls’ pursuit of other free agents, it’s clear that Jones wasn’t their first pick. That’s okay. It’s still not a bad option for frontcourt depth. Jones’ length and athleticism remain valuable traits. He improved as a shooter last season but only managed 32.8 percent (a career best) at 1.2 3 seconds per game. But at 25, Jones still falls into the low-risk, high-reward category.

From the looks of it, the Bulls’ front-court rotation includes Nikola Vučevć, Williams, Andre Drummond, Tony Bradley and Jones. Solid, for sure, especially given the franchise’s limitations. But you can see why a big ground clearance like Danilo Gallinari was the first option.

The Bulls haven’t taken a step forward

It’s difficult to separate this year’s free agency streak from what the bulls did last summer and at the close of last season. They’ve started building a win-now roster but have remained oddly calm as the field aggressively seeks to improve.

The bulls have stuck by the trade deadline this season, held on to their draft position at the 18th pick last week and have now tiptoed into the free hand. Sources say that the Bulls have not only rejected bids for the 18th pick, but have also turned down a significant interest in Coby White, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract and is costing more than the Bulls can afford, to hold him. When the Bulls are making a real run at a championship, sticking with white makes sense. But if the Bulls are serious about the fight, it would also make sense to see them take a more aggressive approach.

Then again, it’s not as if the Bulls would give up the farm for Rudy Gobert. The stated goal was to bring the core back, and every day that passes is another step in that direction. The list stands at 14, a shy of the maximum allowed before two-way contracts (both of which are occupied). Teams often like to go into the season with an open roster spot to allow maximum flexibility for potential signings and trading opportunities. Offseason acquisitions from Drummond and rookie Dalen Terry won’t keep fans juiced or jacked for next season.

But the bulls are not wrong if they think continuity and improved health will matter. Alex Caruso will play more than 41 games. Lonzo Ball will speak at more than 35 competitions. Williams will play more than 17. There is also understandable hope that LaVine will improve, as will the likes of Williams, White and Ayo Dosunmu.

However, for Chicago to finish in the top four and progress beyond the first round, one thing is clear: the improvement must be internal.

What about adding shooting?

The last time we saw the Bulls, they started a franchise-record 52 3-pointers in their Game 5 loss to Milwaukee — and missed 37. Even as the Bulls were severely undermanned that night, it underscored the Team need to shoot perimeter.

Chicago averaged the fewest 3-point attempts (28.8) in the NBA this season, despite finishing fourth on a percentage basis (36.9). An obvious target for the Bulls this offseason has been another sniper threat. But the bulls’ options and resources have dwindled. An experienced minimum candidate like Wayne Ellington can always be added later. And don’t be surprised if the cops turn to the trade market looking for more shootings.

However, remember that when healthy the Bulls have a solid base of perimeter shooters in LaVine, Ball, White and Vučević. More is certainly required and there is still plenty of time for the Bulls to get creative.

(Photo by LaVine: Ken Blaze / USA Today)

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