Out of the three players the Bulls got back in June’s Jimmy Butler trade, Zach LaVine is the one with the greatest potential to make or break their future. Despite his limited skill set, his improved shooting and explosive athleticism give him clear star potential. Combined with his age (22), it’s clear he’s going to be a part of the Bulls’ plan for years to come as they undertake a full rebuild.But unlike Kris Dunn and Lauri Markkanen, LaVine doesn’t come with years of team control on a cheap rookie contract. He’ll make $3.2 million this coming season, his fourth, before hitting restricted free agency in July 2018. Depending on how this season goes, LaVine could be in line for a huge payday — north of $20 million annually, in all likelihood. The biggest variable in the amount of money LaVine could make is his health. He suffered a torn left ACL on Feb. 4, which has the potential to affect his explosiveness going forward. All signs have been positive when it comes to LaVine’s rehab from the injury, but there is no clear timetable for when he’ll be back on the court. All signs are that the Bulls will be conservative in their approach. “I’m feeling really good,” LaVine said in June, at the Bulls’ press conference following the Butler trade. “I’m wholesale nba jerseys attacking this injury like I do everything in life, working my butt off for it every day, in the gym and doing as much as possible. There’s always that base timeline of nine to 12 months with it. I feel like with my ability, I’m able to come back early. But I really haven’t set a timetable for that. I’m very confident that I’ll come back better. This has given me time to work on my mental game, my strength and learn the game more. I have no fear at all coming back from this.” LaVine has since said that he expects to be ready to play when training camp begins in late September. It’s a nice thought, but in a rebuilding year, the Bulls have no reason to let him play that early in the calendar. Don’t expect him back before January at the earliest, and even then he’ll almost definitely be on a minutes limit, and probably not playing on back-to-backs, either. The Bulls aren’t expecting to win games next year, and LaVine is too important to their long-term future to not be cautious with his health. All of which is going to make for an interesting decision for the Bulls and for LaVine before the Oct. 15 rookie extension deadline. Depending on where the salary cap lands, LaVine will be eligible for an extension somewhere above $100 million over four years, the same as the max offer sheet he can sign with another team next summer. Given his talent and upside, it seems likely on the surface that if he hits free agency, another team will throw big money at him, like the Brooklyn Nets did with Otto Porter, the best restricted free agent on the market this summer. (Porter signed a four-year, $106 million offer sheet with the Nets, which the Wizards matched.) If LaVine signs an offer sheet with another team, there’s virtually no scenario in which the Bulls wouldn’t match it, even if it’s for close to the max. It could hurt their cap sheet to pay LaVine that much, but it will hurt more if they let the centerpiece of the Butler trade walk over a few million dollars. If LaVine isn’t willing to take anything less than the max, it makes sense to wait until next summer. But holding out for the absolute most money is a gamble for LaVine, one that could wind up costing him if he and his agent misread the market. It’s no guarantee that he will get a huge deal next summer, especially with his current uncertain health status. The market this summer hasn’t been strong for restricted free agents. Porter and Tim Hardaway, Jr. got paid, but it’s been a tough climate for everyone else. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope signed a one-year deal with the Lakers after Detroit pulled his qualifying offer, and Washington’s Bojan Bogdanovic signed a disappointing two-year, $21 million deal with the Pacers. Dallas’ Nerlens Noel and Memphis’ JaMychal Green are still unsigned, and the Bulls themselves are currently locked in a contract stalemate with Nikola Mirotic, who hasn’t been able to get leverage from other offers. It’s not going to get better next summer. According to a recent story from ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon and Bobby Marks, executives and agents around the league are expecting a “nuclear winter” when it comes to the size of free-agent deals next year, a market correction from the spending frenzy that was 2016 free agency. If LaVine has a setback in his injury rehab, or isn’t the same player coming back that he was before the injury, there may not be a team out there willing to toss him the kind of offer sheet that might make the Bulls think twice about matching. He might find himself in Mirotic’s position, going into free agency hoping for a huge deal and inevitably being forced to sign a smaller one (as Mirotic is expected to do by the start of the season). Signing an extension before the October deadline might make the most sense both for LaVine and for the Bulls. Given how hesitant teams have been to sign long-term deals this summer, LaVine may be willing to take a discount off his max (say, a four-year deal worth between $70 and $80 million, rather than $100-plus) in exchange for four guaranteed years. If he hits the market after anything less than a stellar year, he might be stuck choosing between shorter-term deals or taking a smaller deal from the Bulls. In the best-case scenario, LaVine comes back fully healthy from the knee injury and proves himself to be worthy of a max contract the Bulls will be more than happy to pay him. But there are a lot of variables that could prevent this from being the case, from his health to an uncertain free-agent landscape. How LaVine and the Bulls navigate it between now and October will be worth keeping an eye on as the team positions LaVine as a core piece of its future.
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