Can they win with him?
Can the Bulls win an NBA championship with Zach LaVine?
Can they win a championship because of him?
Those are the questions that were being asked before he agreed to a five-year, $215.2 max contract, and those are the questions being asked now that he has gone from a very rich man to an insanely rich man.
And the answer, before and after, is that nobody, not even his biggest backers, has the foggiest idea. He’s a fine player, one with max-contract talent, but he has a game that doesn’t come with easy answers. I can look at the Celtics’ Marcus Smart and the Bucks’ Jrue Holiday and know I can win with and because of them. Neither can touch LaVine’s athleticism.
I can look at LaVine and know I can’t be sure what I know.
That’s the problem Bulls exec Arturas Karnisovas undoubtedly faced while deciding what to do with LaVine. Here was a fan favorite who was going to get a lot of money wherever he went. Here was a player who could shoot the three and get to the basket whenever he wanted. But here, also, was a player whose game didn’t lend itself to easy translation. There’s playing well, then there’s winning.
It’s not just LaVine. There are plenty of players in the NBA who, while growing up, were led to believe basketball was about showcasing skills. They don’t play with teammates so much as take turns: It’s my turn to shoot. Next time down the court, it will be yours.
So how does an NBA talent evaluator deal with that? Carefully. And that was the problem as it related to LaVine. There was no room for caution. Nothing less than a max deal was going to get this done for the Bulls. So they had a massive decision to make: Give him the money and hope he can win a title in Chicago or let him go and risk him winning a title with someone else.
You would think a five-year, $215.2 million max contract would come with definitive answers. I’m sure the Bulls wish they had more assurances, too. My guess is that, back to the wall, they did what they thought they had to do but aren’t sure whether LaVine can carry a team to an NBA title. Aren’t sure they can win because of him.
For most of LaVine’s career, the problem has been the talent around him. He didn’t have much help until this past season, when the Bulls, boosted by the arrival of DeMar DeRozan, played well before going quickly in the postseason. The idea around the max contract has to be that, with the right players around him, he can take the Bulls to the next level. That’s the belief, anyway. It’s about faith. But it’s also about economics. With so much of their money tied to one player, the Bulls don’t have a lot of wiggle room. In other words, a trade bringing Kevin Durant to the Bulls isn’t going to happen. The Bulls have agreed to a two-year contract with Andre Drummond, giving them more toughness on the boards. No, the cavalry isn’t on the way, but that’s OK. The Bulls do have some horses.
Everything, however, is on LaVine. He has to stay healthy, something that hasn’t been easy for him. He has to make DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Lonzo Ball better. He’s part of a very nice team, which sounds almost patronizing, but the Bulls need something more. That contract means LaVine has to make his team hell for opponents.
At a minimum, this will be interesting. If everyone stays healthy, the Bulls will win games. Winning big games — now there’s the challenge. They didn’t do well against good teams this past season. It was no surprise when the Bucks manhandled them in the first round of the playoffs.
For a two-time All-Star who averaged 24.4 points this past season, LaVine sure has a lot to prove. The truckload of money that was just dumped at his feet means people will want even more proof of his worth. The tricky part is the winning part. The Bulls have to win. There’s no nuance involved. They’re paying LaVine a ton of money to take them where Michael Jordan used to take them regularly. No pressure, kid.
The Bulls were a fun story this past season. They were likable. They played well together. But now there has to be more. And all that money means there has to be more from their best player.
Talent never has been the issue with LaVine. Can that talent translate into a title? It’s the only question there is. Even after giving him a max deal, the Bulls surely have to be asking themselves the same thing.