Bulls’ Zach LaVine has a deep conversation about being a max player

It’s no secret to the All-Star guard that critics — starting right here — have questioned the idea of maxing him in free agency next offseason. He discussed it one-on-one, explained where he’s coming from and might have just pulled off one heck of a sales pitch.

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PORTLAND, Ore. — Bulls guard Zach LaVine was willing to sit down, skip the safe answers and clichés and have a good, old-fashioned sports debate.

What made it unique was that it was about his value as an NBA player headed toward a maximum contract — not a topic most pro athletes are willing to sit down with a sportswriter and discuss.

But that’s why Bulls writers have long respected LaVine: He’s an All-Star who handles himself like the kid next door.

“You have a job to do, and I get that,” LaVine said. “It’s your opinion, and I’ve always respected that.’’

That didn’t mean he agreed with it. And I respected that.

LaVine and the max have always made me nervous, enough that I’ve been outspoken over the last year about the Bulls not maxing him if they could avoid it.

“I’m basing it on history,” I told him as we walked toward the locker room in Portland. “Name me an off-guard who was not a two-way player that was maxed, and I’ll tell you all the teams that regret that decision and never won a title . . . ’cause there’s a bunch of them.’’

LaVine nodded in agreement. Then he stopped.

“I get the argument,” he said. “But you’re assuming that I’m done.”

The kid next door had a point — one that started to sway my take.

“How’s my defensive rating now?” LaVine said. “It’s better. What does that tell you?”

He wasn’t wrong. Through the first 14 games of last season, LaVine was 415th in defensive rating (117.5) and 211th among NBA starters. Through the first 15 games this season, he has a 103.4 defensive rating, putting him 79th among starting players and 199th overall.

“It’s your job to have opinions, and one of my jobs as a professional athlete and a guy that’s extremely competitive is to go out there and try and prove people wrong,” LaVine said. “Am I going to get that right every time? No, but that’s the fun of sports. I get to have chips on my shoulder and bring that extra stuff to the game.

“Look, I get it — I do want to improve on everything, and I know that I haven’t had the best narrative for defense. I know people know me as a hard worker, a great guy, someone that goes out there and can obviously score the hell out the ball. But I want to be known as a winner and a complete player. I mean, I’m not putting all this work in just to be a regular guy in the NBA. I think I’m proving that each and every year.”

LaVine still looks like he can rip out an opponent’s soul with his shot-making, but he’s also now willing to rip the ball away on defense, too.

He has had moments this year where he still loses his man deeper in the possession, but since his work as a defensive stopper for Team USA in the Summer Olympics, the eye test says he’s been far more active on defense.

So why now? What took so long?

“There wasn’t one point that I just said, ‘Let me work on it,’ but also, nothing happens overnight,” LaVine said. “So many people in this basketball culture, like even draft picks, you’re supposed to be who you’re supposed to be. That’s not how it happens. Some guys mature later. I’m going to be a worker regardless. I’m going to be a worker until I retire, and that’s what keeps me going. Little things that the media says, I [critique] myself, the way coaches and other players view you . . . that all adds fuel to the fire.”

Maxing LaVine would mean five years, $210 million. That would put him up there with the game’s elite: Steph Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Paul George, Jimmy Butler. But there are also some clunkers in that pay range: John Wall, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris.

I’m now willing to bet he’ll work to be part of that first group. I’ll take that leap with him.

But there will be a cost. The Bulls added $200 million in contracts last summer to give LaVine the best supporting cast he has ever had. Unless he forfeits money, it would seem something else has to give.

“I’ve got a great agent in Rich Paul, and I think he’s going to take care of all that,” LaVine said, laughing.

There’s also a scenario in which he could be eligible for the “super max” — $230 million instead of $210 million — if he’s All-NBA. That price is still hard to swallow.

We’ll discuss it when the time comes. The barbershop is always open.

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