Zach LaVine on impending free agency: 'I should be getting what I deserve'

CLEVELAND — Perhaps no player can make a bigger jump in profile over the next three months than Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine.

He’s a two-time All-Star and for the first time in his career, on a bona fide playoff team with aspirations on making noise beyond the first round. He and DeMar DeRozan rank as one of the league’s best duos, a deadly perimeter 1-2 punch that will create matchup problems across the board.

And he’ll be a free agent in July — an unrestricted free agent. A big playoff run could erase any remaining doubts, if there are any.

“Free agency is gonna be a big milestone for me,” LaVine told Yahoo Sports. “It's my first time going into it really being [an] unrestricted free agent. I dealt with it being restricted before so it's a whole new experience.

“I'm excited for the season with the Bulls. But you know, moving forward, it's gonna be a whole new experience for me.”

He makes the distinction for a reason. It took the Sacramento Kings signing LaVine to a four-year, $78 million offer sheet in 2018 — the Bulls matched it, thus retaining his services — to get his first big contract.

LaVine was a year removed from ACL surgery, but there didn’t seem to be much doubt he would return to being a productive player. But he’s made critical jumps since then and is in line to have his salary reflect that, averaging 26 points, nearly five rebounds and five assists on 50% shooting and 41% from three over the last two seasons.

Zach LaVine has been an integral part of the Chicago Bulls' rise in the Eastern Conference this season. Now, he could be in line for a max contract during free agency this summer. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Zach LaVine has been an integral part of the Chicago Bulls' rise in the Eastern Conference this season. Now, he could be in line for a max contract during free agency this summer. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

He and DeRozan each have had moments in the clutch, and his production ranks favorably or a lot better than contemporaries Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum.

And that restricted free agency experience sticks with him. He’s not on the Michael Jordan scale of petty or the Scottie Pippen scale of delusion, but he quietly craves the validation. LaVine is eligible for a five-year deal around $200 million this summer if he re-signs with the Bulls — and higher if he makes an All-NBA team. He can get a four-year deal around $160 million if he outright signs with another team.

“I remember everything now,” LaVine said, smiling. “I know it's a different front office, a different time. But I'm gonna take it day by day and let my agent handle it. But I remember everything. It's something — I always have a chip on my shoulder for multiple reasons.”

John Paxson and Gar Forman were running the front office in 2018, but have been replaced by Artūras Karnišovas as team president and Marc Eversley as general manager. The Bulls have quickly elevated to the top of the East, with shrewd trades and signings — and keeping LaVine as a rare holdover.

This regime keeps its strategy a mystery, but LaVine is making a case for a max contract — which he won’t definitively say but won’t deny, either.

“I think we all get what we deserve at the level we play at, for our team and around the league. I think I stack up with everybody at that level,” he said. “We’ll let the chips fall. Is the [max] the goal? I don’t know if it’s the goal, but I should be getting what I deserve.

“I’ll let them tell me what that is and we’ll go from there.”

July is five months away. The more pressing issue is his left knee. He missed the last three games before the All-Star break and went to Los Angeles to see a specialist, but was relieved the results determined the situation is more manageable than severe.

LaVine had platelet-rich plasma (PRP) treatment, took a cortisone shot and had it drained, leaving him confident about participating in Sunday’s All-Star Game and Saturday’s 3-Point Contest.

In theory, he could wait until he’s completely healthy as opposed to playing through some discomfort — especially with a contract on the line. But being this close to real relevancy and the East being so contested is too tantalizing to resist for LaVine.

“It's tough because I'm a competitor. Obviously, I've been playing this year, and not at 100 percent,” LaVine said. "So it means a lot for me to go out there and sacrifice a little bit of myself for the team to make us better and help us continue to win.”

That sacrifice isn’t always reciprocated on the back end, so he’s not operating under any hope the Bulls will reward him regardless of his body’s condition.

“I’m doing this for me personally. I want to win,” LaVine said. “Everybody has to understand that it is a business and sometimes you have to look out for yourself in those situations. I always want to be healthy and safe.”

He feels like he’s answered all the questions presented to him. Being productive, playing winning basketball and being able to work with DeRozan on the floor and off. LaVine knows what he wants, and so do the Bulls.

“That’s why I don’t have to talk about it,” LaVine said. “I’ll go into the offseason, after this year and be very satisfied with what I think I’ll get and I’ll be happy for me and my family.”