Bulls

Bulls knew a bill might be coming when they acquired Zach LaVine; is it here?

When it’s not your money, your body or your life, it’s easy to tell someone what to do with it. I’ve made a career out of this with athletes and teams.

The question before us is how big a part will restricted free agent Zach LaVine play in the Bulls’ rebuild?

Answer: Bigger than it might appear.

He was the centerpiece of the draft-day trade last year that also brought Kris Dunn and the draft pick that became Lauri Markkanen to the Bulls. In return for that bounty (and the chance to rebuild), the Bulls traded All-Star Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves. Markkanen seems to have eclipsed LaVine as the team’s star of the future.

The Bulls' Zach LaVine dunks against Orlando last season. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

LaVine was pretty good, but not great, last season, averaging 16.7 points on just 38.3 percent shooting. The easiest thing to do would be to dismiss him as being expendable if he wants a lot of money from the Bulls (probably) or if another team signs him to an offer sheet (maybe). The Bulls would be able to match any offer.

LaVine was coming off surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament when the Bulls acquired him, which was why he played 24 games last season. The inconsistency we saw from him was a direct result of that. Or, to put it another way, patience, people. There’s a better chance that LaVine is going to be much, much better with 11 months of rehab and 24 games under his belt than there is that he will shoot so badly from the floor again.

He can still be that star the Bulls thought he’d be.

The Bulls have to take that into consideration as much or more than they do the money, even though there has been some speculation that LaVine wants close to a max contract. Team vice president John Paxson has said the Bulls need to be patient in free agency, which is code for not overspending for a veteran simply to excite the fan base. The signing of Dwyane Wade still brings on mass heartburn in Chicago. But Paxson also could have sent out a warning that LaVine shouldn’t expect the world in terms of an offer from the Bulls.

There were givens involved when they traded for LaVine — that his knee would take time to get better and that another team might step forward with an offer sheet that would make them wince.

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When Paxson put that deal together last year, he likely saw it as a whole, not as three separate pieces. LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen could develop together quite nicely. What has changed? Not much, other than a predictably uneven season from LaVine. Contracts are supposed to reflect future performance. No matter what the Bulls thought they saw from him last season, good or bad, it says here that LaVine is going to make a huge leap next season that has nothing to do with the NBA Dunk Contest. Assuming his knee is fine, he’s prime to have a big season — and career. He’s only 23.

A young, talented shooting guard with a 21-year-old 7-footer who can shoot (Markkanen) and a 24-year-old point guard (Dunn)? That’s a rebuild that would grab anybody’s attention.

The Bulls know LaVine better than any of us do. They know his strengths and weaknesses. They know how hard he works or doesn’t work. They probably have a contract number over which they refuse to go. But, again, when they made the trade and knew that LaVine would be a restricted free agent in July, they had to have had a decent idea of what the ceiling might be for contract offers. Now is not the time to be surprised if a team such as the Kings or the Hawks covet him a way that translates into a lot of money.

The Bulls have to worry about the future, and that of course includes paying other players. But this is the cost of doing business, and they know it.

They can talk with LaVine about signing a contract that makes more sense for their budget. They can tell him that the franchise is going somewhere and that he’s a big part of the engine. They can tell him that once you get past a certain amount of money, your life is basically the same — great.

All of these things would be fair points, and perhaps LaVine has felt an affinity for his teammates that would make him agree to a team-friendly discount. He should listen to all those things. Sometimes, kid, it really isn’t all about the money.

But if he doesn’t want to sign a contract with the Bulls, then it’s up to the market to decide if he’s worth more money. And if the market says he is, then it’s up to the Bulls to decide how much they like him.

They liked him so much last season that they traded for him to be a cornerstone of their rebuild. Same question, asked one more time: What has changed?

Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.