Discussing Zach LaVine’s free agency, Bulls’ playoff chances

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Mailbag: Will LaVine leave in FA? Bulls’ playoff chances? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Chicago Bulls are closing in on the stretch run, hoping to get fully healthy. You’re closing in on the largest mailbag in beat writing history.

Thanks for all the questions.

What are your thoughts on the idea that our poor defense continues to be solely explained away by the absence of Alex Caruso and Lonzo Ball? Do you have optimism that their returns will boost our defense to the ranks of the league’s elite as it was at the beginning of the year? Publicly, we keep hearing from players that our abysmal performance against teams with winning percentages better than .600 is an opportunity to grow. But being around the guys, do you sense that there is ongoing significant concern about what seems to be an obvious trend? — Calvin H.

I think Billy Donovan has done a good job of keeping it real regarding your first question. He always talks about trying to dominate what you can control. Well, even without Ball and Caruso, you can control blocking out and limiting second-chance points. You can control effort and awareness for solid transition defense. The Bulls had one possession in the Heat game where they lost Duncan Robinson for an open 3-pointer after a made basket. They had another where they missed a 3-pointer and, despite having the floor balanced for solid transition, got beat downcourt. Those things can’t happen.

The Bulls always will be affected by the loss of Ball and Caruso because their point-of-attack defense is so critical to the defensive scheme. It makes everyone behind them play “bigger” and also helps Nikola Vučević focus on the defensive areas where he is efficient. He’s solid at deflections and rebounding. He’s not as adept at guarding players in space or rim protection.

As for the mood, we don’t have nearly as much casual time with the players as we did pre-pandemic. That’s not a complaint. It’s just the way it is. And that’s something I doubt they’d privately reveal anyway. What I will say is this team remains supremely confident that, when whole, they can compete with anyone.

Preseason, I asked your opinion regarding rotations and how that may progress through the season.  Coach Donovan has proven himself masterful and agile given the cumulative injury burden.  But I’ll ask it again now as bringing back key players from major injuries is not a simple plug and play.  How do you view roughly the last half of March actually playing out? — Hugh O.D.

It’s a good question and a dynamic that Donovan himself has referred to as challenging. I’d say the Grizzlies game offered a snippet of foreshadowing. Ayo Dosunmu had one of his rare games where he looked like a rookie and Donovan rode Coby White down the stretch.

When Ball and Caruso return, you can’t play five guards regular rotational minutes. So you’ll see such situational minutes moving forward. Another example would be Javonte Green. He’s been fantastic in his role as a glue guy. But if Patrick Williams returns at an impactful level, Green’s role will change.

Playoff rotations tend to be shorter. But I can see Donovan mixing and matching if the injured guys return at a high level. The Bulls have developed a lot of depth in their absence.

I know they have similar timelines. But In your mind, who comes back first between Caruso and Ball, and when? — Jordan B.

I really do think it’s going to be close. But at this point, I’d guess Caruso is slightly ahead. Ball is just starting cutting, while Caruso is conditioned and just needs to get strength and mobility in his right wrist. I watched him shoot multiple corner 3-pointers following Wednesday’s practice in Miami, and he looked good. I’d think mid-March is realistic for both.

This is in no way a complaint about DeMar DeRozan, as that would be idiotic. But one mild concern I have about the Bulls’ offense — and you can tell me if this is also idiotic — is that anecdotally it feels like a large number of possessions consist of DeRozan — and to a lesser extent Zach LaVine — dribbling a lot and taking a jumper. Is there any reason to feel like not getting more players involved, especially Vooch, could hurt come playoff time? — Matt H.

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I think this is something that only has recently bubbled up a bit as the early portion of the season was defined, at least to me, by sublime ball movement. The Bulls have 16 30-assist games this season, tied for fifth in the league. But they haven’t had one since Feb.  11 versus the Timberwolves and have had multiple games of late with fewer than 20 assists. I’m not sure if this is a reflection of LaVine missing multiple games in February or the torrid streak DeRozan experienced.

I do know that, like most teams, the Bulls are more effective when there’s ball and player movement.

I found your interview with Michael Reinsdorf very interesting.  While I’m hopeful that the organization will finally commit to paying the tax if we have a championship level team, I think I’ve earned the right to be skeptical.  I mean, they did trade away that 2017 second-round pick for cash on the same night they sent Jimmy Butler to the Wolves. How much authority will Michael have in making that luxury tax decision or does Jerry still have the final say? — Emilio H

Well, Michael is publicly saying the same thing Jerry did back during the Derrick Rose era. The franchise will pay the tax for title-contending teams. Your skepticism is why I raised the trade of Luol Deng in 2014, which took the Bulls out of the tax following Rose’s meniscus tear and second season-ending surgery.

“That was a particular circumstance. You’re not going to see us make trades like that when we’re competing for championships,” Michael Reinsdorf said on the Bulls Talk Podcast. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

Also, while Jerry still signs off on major decisions, this is Michael’s show now. The hiring of Arturas Karnišovas was reflective of that. Michael did all the work on that and decided to hire Karnišovas and then brought Karnišovas to Jerry for final approval. They’re in lockstep on the luxury tax issue.

Thirteen-year season ticket holder with a question: Just curious if you see there being a real risk to Zach LaVine leaving after this season. He’s doing a great job of praising DeMar for his big fourth quarters and winning shots, but I have to believe it eats away at him a little bit. The fans have really taken to DeMar and he has repeatedly proven to be a very savvy veteran who gets his shots under pressure. Zach seems to press so hard to try to be a great closer. I doubt he wants to go to a bad team to become the star there and miss the playoffs again in the future, so I suppose his choices are to sign a max contract and remain a tandem top player with DeMar and the Bulls or become a true second or third on another playoff team, i.e. joining someone like the Nets or Lakers.

I think Zach’s defense has improved this year, particularly when Lonzo and Caruso were playing.  Their defensive aggression really seemed to rub off on everyone from Zach to Green to Vooch.  But I do see Zach as pretty topped out offensively.  He should remain a 23-25pt scorer for several years since he’s only roughly 26 years old.  But too many times, when an opponent is on a 7-0 or 10-0 run, you see Zach take an ill-timed stepback fadeaway 3-point shot or worse 20-footer with 15 on the shot clock.  He’s good for a handful of very sloppy turnovers each game, forcing passes and yo-yo dribbling and losing the ball.  As I’ve repeated many times lately, I love what Zach has become but I’m frustrated about what he can’t be.

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I’m just curious if you feel a quick loss in the first round might lead him to decide he needs to move on.  Paying him $245 million over five years (if he makes All-NBA) is going to leave this team pretty much as it is today — good with only the upside of what Patrick Williams might become. No doubt the Bulls can be a top-four team in the East. But I don’t think we can be a true title contender as we are made up today or for the short-term future with a max contract for Zach. — Matt C.

One thing I’ve learned about free agency: Never say never and it’s not over until a contract is signed. Now, with that said, LaVine loves living in Chicago, loves playing for Billy Donovan and loves representing the Bulls. He has a front office that he has praised repeatedly for their aggressive mindset and which values his input, plus an ownership group committed to paying him.

So I’d be surprised if he’s elsewhere. I could maybe see him taking a shorter deal for more flexibility, but that’s just speculation based on that trend throughout the league.

I think your analysis of his game and his closing ability is fair. I’d also add he’s not fully healthy right now, so it’s hard to fully judge his game. I think he has shown growth both at the defensive end and as a decision-maker and distributor when he’s fully healthy. I also think your speculation of him being jealous of DeRozan is off base. Maybe “jealous” is too strong a word for your take as I found your question to be level-headed and perceptive. But trust me: LaVine is tired of losing. He knows DeRozan makes him and the Bulls better. He’s all in on that.

I know the cap will probably go up and the actual contract number for Zach will depend on All-NBA selection and how well the Bulls do in the playoffs. But is there a scenario where you see Zach getting his extension and the Bulls NOT going into the luxury tax and remaining an Eastern Conference contender? Perhaps finding a new home for Vučević? Seems like the core going forward is Ball/Caruso/Demar/Zach and young players like Ayo, Coby, and PWill. — Kristian B.

I’m intrigued to see how the Bulls can play and pay five guards. So I’d shift the focus off Vučević, who, it should be noted, has a de-escalating contract next season, the last of his deal.

There’s certainly a scenario in which the Bulls aren’t a tax team. But given Michael Reinsdorf’s comments, LaVine’s extension and this managerial regime’s aggressiveness, I see them being a tax team. This is also a very creative front office, and assistant general manager J.J. Polk is valued for his ability to manage the cap. Stay tuned.

Do you think the Bulls can make it to the Eastern Conference finals or NBA Finals if everyone remains healthy throughout the whole playoffs? And do you think that if all the top-five teams were healthy, the Bulls would still be top-two in the East? — Christian K.

I don’t see the Bulls making either the Eastern Conference finals or the NBA Finals. But I also predicted them for 45 victories, so why are you asking me?

I kid. Sports predictions are a messy business. It’s why they play the games. But I’ve opined this before on the Bulls Talk Podcast: I think this is an excellent regular-season team. I favor size, physicality and experience in the playoffs. So while I actually do think they could be a top-two team if all teams had stayed fully healthy (which never happens by the way), I’ve always had Milwaukee, Miami and Philadelphia ahead of them in the playoffs.

But I do think they’re going to be a tough out no matter who they play if they’re at full strength.

I love Coby White. I remember years ago Bill Simmons saying about Ben Gordon something like “he’s not an All-Star, but he scares me because he can win a game or two in a playoff series by himself.” That’s what I think of Coby. Although I think there’s problems on the defensive side that he’ll never overcome (he does try), I think he’ll continue to evolve into a dynamite offensive player.

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Having said that: Is LaVine’s upcoming max extension and Ayo’s presence (and the fact that Ayo’s contract runs out at the same time), and the fact that all our best players are mostly guards… is that “adios” for Coby? — Alejandro Y.

It wasn’t at this trade deadline. And I know Ball and Caruso were out. But management teams also think big picture and the word around the league was that the Bulls intended to keep White for anyone who inquired about him. That’s not to say he was, or is, untouchable. But he is valued.

I do agree you can’t play five guards, much less pay them all. White becomes extension-eligible this offseason, but if no deal is reached, would enter restricted free-agency after the 2022-23 season. It will be intriguing to see how management tackles that situation.

Talk about a good problem to have.  Both Coby White and Any Dosunmu have shown themselves to be quality guards for different reasons.  But with Ayo being a second-round pick, his contract is up sooner.  What guard should the Bulls invest in going forward? — Donnie S.

I’m terrible at the GM thing, but here’s what I’d do: Lock up Dosunmu first and, if you haven’t yet reached agreement on an extension with White that makes sense for the franchise moving forward, tackle his situation later. You can keep both. I just don’t see it happening. Both are obviously assets.

Is Derrick Jones Jr. undervalued? There was no hesitation in including him in trade ideas. Having a good lob threat (outside of Zach LaVine) to pair with Lonzo Ball makes for show-stopping passing highlights. — Shalamar M.W.

He represented one of the Bulls’ few assets at the trade deadline because of his expiring deal. But you heard management: They valued this team and wanted to see what it could do whole and once it achieved continuity.

I think Jones Jr. had a stretch back in November and December where he played some very impactful minutes. Since then, he has dealt with injury and foul trouble. He’s a rotation player, for sure. But I don’t see him undervalued.

As great as this team is, I can’t stop thinking about Nikola Jokić being an unrestricted free agent in a couple years. That seems like more than enough to win a championship, assuming DeMar DeRozan doesn’t fall off too hard in the third year of that deal. Is this in AK’s long-term future? He obviously was part of the management team that drafted Jokić in Denver, so I’m assuming that bond is pretty close. — Mahmoud B.

All I know is if it happens, Nuggets president Tim Connelly is never speaking to his brother, Pat, again. (Pat Connelly serves as the Bulls’ vice president of player personnel.)

I mean, just like LaVine, you never say never until a contract is signed. From all accounts, Jokić loves Denver and the Nuggets franchise and is a loyal guy. Losing a player like that is a franchise-wrecker, so obviously Denver will do everything it can to keep him — and they will have the ability to pay him more than any outside suitors.

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