LaVine says returning to Chicago is an option

CHICAGO — While he hasn’t ruled out re-signing with the Chicago Bulls, Zach LaVine hasn’t slammed the door on joining another team either.

The two-time All-Star played it coy. And with that, the offseason took a dramatic turn in Chicago.

LaVine made it clear Friday that he plans to explore the market as an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, calling it a “big decision” for him and his family. The top-flight guard insisted he kept an open mind as much as he enjoyed his five seasons in Chicago.

He indicated that he intended to meet other teams when free agency opened, saying, “I plan to take advantage of free agency. We’re going to have to experiment A to Z without making any decisions. fast. I think it’s something that me and [agent Rich Paul] will go through and experience.”

Are the Bulls the leader to sign him? LaVine was evasive.

“You’ve been a really, really sweet place in my heart,” he said. “I have to do this as a business decision, as a man, to not be seen one way and feel like I’m automatically coming back or automatically leaving.”

The Bulls have gotten off to a good start this season en route to a 46-36 record and their first playoff appearance since 2017. But they’ve been hit hard by injuries, with LaVine and guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso and the striker Patrick Williams missing significant stretches. They struggled in the stretch and were knocked out 4-1 by defending NBA champion Milwaukee in the first round.

LaVine averaged 24.4 points, made his second straight All-Star team and had his first playoff look in his eighth year. But it was not a quiet season for him.

He struggled with an early thumb injury and has been in and out of the lineup for the past few months due to left knee pain. He had platelet-rich plasma therapy, a cortisone injection and fluid drained from his knee in Los Angeles before the All-Star break.

LaVine also missed the final game of the playoffs after going into health and safety protocols. He said he tested negative on Friday after “feeling bad” the first two days.

LaVine said he needs to get his knee back 100% and will have it re-examined shortly after returning to Los Angeles. As for his contract? The Bulls clearly want to keep him.

“The thing is, we have a relationship with him, he knows exactly what to expect here,” executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas said. “We have a very good relationship with him. The last two years have been the best two years of his career, so we’ll see what happens.”

Karnisovas said the knee issue will not impact the negotiations. LaVine’s four-year, $78 million contract is about to expire.

A supermax deal worth around $245 million over five years seems out of reach as he would need to be picked All-NBA, MVP or Defensive Player of the Year to become eligible. The Bulls can offer a maximum contract worth more than $210 million over five years.

But LaVine didn’t seem too keen on giving the Bulls a discount so they could have a little more salary cap flexibility.

“I think it’s important to me that you get paid according to your worth,” he said. “I consider myself a top player in this league. I think I’ve proven that over the past four years.”

He also sees the Bulls’ potential to become an elite team. Karnisovas has been aggressive in revamping the roster since being hired two years ago, acquiring Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan, Ball and Caruso as well as drafting Ayo Dosunmu and hiring coach Billy Donovan.

But last season’s injuries made it difficult to develop the continuity they needed to compete with the best in the NBA. It’s a point that the players as well as Donovan and Karnisovas have mentioned over the past two days. A big part of that would be re-signing LaVine.

“I don’t think Rome was built in a year,” LaVine said. “I don’t think you can be a championship caliber team right off the bat. Maybe some teams are. But it’s tough. It’s the first time a lot of us have made the playoffs. . I think it was a really good experience. And we all haven’t really been able to play together due to covid circumstances and injuries. I really think they’re a good team and have the potential to be a championship caliber team.

Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, right, battles Milwaukee Bucks guard Grayson Allen in the first half of Game 4 of an NBA basketball playoff series in the first round, Sunday, April 24, 2022, at Chicago. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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