“Continuity” was the buzzword this week as Chicago Bulls players and management met with reporters one last time following their first-round playoff loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Keeping the core together was the stated goal of executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas, though it will be greatly weakened unless Zach LaVine returns. And as one of the most coveted unrestricted free agents this summer, that’s not a slam dunk — even if the Bulls can offer him the most money.
While he said he has a “really soft spot in my heart” for Bulls fans, LaVine was noncommittal Friday when asked about his return.
“I have to do this as a business decision as a man, not to just be viewed one way, and be like, ‘Aw, I’m automatically coming back’ or ‘I’m automatically leaving,’ things like that,” he said. “It’s unrestricted free agency, for my family and me. I have to go into this like it’s a decision where I have to be open-eyed. And obviously I have to make my list and talk to everybody in the summertime.”
What factors will he consider?
“That’s a good question, because I don’t even know yet,” he said.
I think I can help here. There is only one factor that really matters, and it’s revealed in rapper Too Short/’s song “Get That Cheese:”
“It’s payday, get that cheese. You gotta get that cheese. Just get that cheese.”
LaVine deserves as much cheese as he can get, and good luck to him in his pursuit of mega millions. DeMar DeRozan called him a “max everything” player, meaning LaVine deserves a max contract for everything he does on the court and is as good a person as anyone off the court.
Bulls fans shouldn’t blame LaVine if he leaves. He has given everything you could ask for in his five years in Chicago and never complained about having to be the centerpiece of a failed rebuild for four of those seasons.
Of course, his health also is on everyone’s mind. Asked if a left knee issue will factor into the Bulls’ decision on LaVine, Karnišovas said: “No, I don’t think so.’’
So in the long term, the knee won’t be an issue?
“No, not that I know,” Karnišovas said. “But again, in a short time we’re going to figure out what his plan is for the summer.”
That’s an optimistic view, considering LaVine might have offseason knee surgery “almost immediately after the playoffs,” at least according to a Sun-Times report. LaVine said he’ll take a week or so to “chill” at home in California before seeing doctors. Karnišovas said he didn’t know if LaVine would need surgery and declined to speculate.
But LaVine’s explosiveness is dependent on his knees. If you’re going to offer a player a max contract, it would make sense to believe he’ll be healthy for most of the next five years. Hopefully that’s the case, because the Bulls are better with LaVine than without him.
Yet as much as everyone in Chicago loves LaVine, he’s not the most indispensable player on the Bulls roster. That would be DeRozan, who supplanted LaVine as the face of the organization with a career year at 32. He has two years remaining on his contract and it’s imperative to win while he’s still here.
Unlike most of us, DeRozan isn’t worried about the ravages of aging.
“If LeBron (James) still is doing what he’s doing (at 37), I got hope,” he said. “I got some years (left). I don’t look at it like I’m getting older (and) I’m getting slower. At the end of the day, I look at it like I’m getting smarter.
“I’m getting more of a will to keep being better. I don’t look at age too much. Maybe when I’m 38 or something. Just taking care of myself physically, mentally is a big part to this whole thing. I’ve been blessed to mostly stay healthy throughout my career. As long as I can go out and play, I’m going to figure out a way to get better.”
DeRozan should be the kind of player his peers want to play alongside, which should aid the Bulls in free agency. They need another point guard with Lonzo Ball’s health in question, and a rim protector to complement Nikola Vučević. Not to mention someone who can come off the bench and consistently hit 3-pointers like Grayson Allen did to them in the playoffs.
Alex Caruso is a great defender and a fan favorite, but offensively he’s not much of a threat. Patrick Williams had moments where he looked like a first-round pick and moments where he was barely visible on the court. Ayo Dosunmu needs to get stronger and work on his shooting.
Chicago Tribune Sports
A daily sports newsletter delivered to your inbox for your morning commute.
The good news for Karnišovas is that Chicago is no longer a place quality free agents use to get leverage from the teams they’re actually interested in.
“I was pleasantly surprised last summer how many people wanted to play in Chicago,” Karnišovas said. “Just the history of this franchise, the city of Chicago. And I think anybody that steps into the United Center, they feel the energy and passion.”
That wasn’t always the case. After “The Last Dance” aired in 2020, Chicagoan and former NBA star Antoine Walker told WSCR-AM 670 the Bulls were “not a huge free agency attraction spot and that bothers me. Chicago isn’t a buzzing place that the elite players in the league talk about going to.”
Even though the Bulls weren’t DeRozan’s first choice — he reportedly talked to James about joining the Los Angeles Lakers — he said it turned out to be a “perfect” place for him. Few players in any sport have come to Chicago in their 30s and become as instantly beloved as DeRozan. He’s Dennis Rodman without the craziness.
DeRozan also is one of the most respected players in the league, and if he can convince some quality free agents to join him, it’s likely a few will listen. Coach Billy Donovan is a players’ coach with the right personality for this team, and with the Bulls on the upswing, Karnišovas should be able to build around his core and give Donovan a real bench.
One thing Karnišovas has that his predecessors lacked is the trust of Bulls fans. He has changed the perception of the franchise, and that’s no small accomplishment.
All in all, it was a fun season, and eventually we’ll see if LaVine gets his cheese — and if the Bulls can take another big step forward next season.