How the Bulls' situation with Zach LaVine is taking shape

The Chicago Bulls began to gauge the trade value of two-time All-Star guard Zach LaVine this past offseason, according to league sources familiar with the matter, even offering LaVine to several teams in search of packages that were equivalent to those of recent superstar returns. Now following a 4-8 start to this 2023-24 campaign, Chicago and LaVine share a mutual interest in finding a trade for the athletic scorer, sources confirmed. The Athletic first reported the Bulls’ latest development.

To many around the NBA, Chicago’s circumstances feel like the culmination of an inevitability. During this summer’s FIBA World Cup, starting center Nikola Vučević told Yahoo Sports the Bulls’ players — including the All-Star center, LaVine and DeMar DeRozan — each understood this third, full season together presented Chicago’s final opportunity to solidify this group as a legitimate playoff threat in the Eastern Conference.

“We know we can do better, and we have to do better,” Vučević said in August. “And we know it’s kind of our last chance as this core of guys to do something.”

And yet the offseason additions of Torrey Craig and Jevon Carter have not helped elevate Chicago in the standings, ever crowded with postseason hopefuls in the league’s new age of the play-in tournament. Patrick Williams, the No. 4 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, has shown no tangible signs of the breakout Bulls officials have been hoping for, especially since losing Lonzo Ball to a debilitating knee injury that has sidelined the connective point guard since January 2022.

CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 15: Zach LaVine (8) of the Chicago Bulls brings the ball up court against the Orlando Magic during the second half at the United Center on November 15, 2023 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Zach LaVine is a talented player, but he comes with a hefty contract. (Photo by Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

LaVine, according to multiple sources familiar with his thinking, does not view this Bulls roster as competitive enough to turn any type of contending corner in the East. From the surface, it’s evident Chicago has a dearth of outside shooting — ranking 22nd in the league in 3-point percentage — surrounding a trio of scorers in LaVine, Vučević and DeRozan who have an affinity for operating in the midrange. LaVine, league sources told Yahoo Sports, is also ready to play under a different head coach than Billy Donovan, who signed an extension with the club before the 2022-23 season began.

LaVine desires to play for a winning franchise, although he has drawn plenty of criticism from league personnel regarding his own culpability in Chicago’s losing nature. His defensive shortcomings long served as a thorn for Bulls coaches, particularly with Vučević not supplying elite, back-line rim protection behind opponents’ perimeter action. The four years and roughly $180 million remaining on LaVine’s contract, including this season, are surely viewed by a handful of front offices around the NBA as a deterrent for acquiring LaVine. Perhaps his 77 games played last season may help dispel any notion of a concerning injury history, as a torn ACL in 2017 cost him the better part of two seasons and knee soreness plagued his All-Star arrival in Chicago.

There are still plenty of teams who have called on his availability, and will call. All-Stars who combine elite long-range shooting and the athleticism to change dunk-contest lore simply don’t grow on trees. Adding such a talent in more of a complementary role, rather than as the franchise centerpiece for whom Chicago acquired Vučević at the 2021 NBA trade deadline, is much more intriguing to front-office personnel around the NBA.

LaVine and his representation hold several preferred landing spots, such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and Philadelphia 76ers, league sources told Yahoo Sports, and each team has registered some level of interest in the Bulls guard. LaVine also has an eye on joining the San Antonio Spurs, sources said, in order to pair with rookie sensation Victor Wembanyama and reunite with head coach Gregg Popovich, who oversaw the 2020 Team USA outfit that LaVine helped win a gold medal in Tokyo. There are several other contending situations LaVine would welcome joining, sources said, one being Sacramento. The Kings signed LaVine to an offer sheet during his restricted free agency in 2018, albeit before this present front office regime took the reins in Northern California.

At first blush, the Lakers appear the most natural partner for the Bulls, as Los Angeles is mired in its own suboptimal start and has already attempted various iterations of a third scoring option behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis. LaVine played his college ball at UCLA and also shares an agent with James and Davis in Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Los Angeles, though, will likely be restricted in its approach for LaVine until Dec. 15, when the Lakers can move free agents they signed this offseason such as D’Angelo Russell and Rui Hachimura to help match LaVine’s $40.1 million cap hit, in addition to lacking the first-round draft capital Chicago will surely covet in return. There is a general belief among league figures that any LaVine trade, whether to Los Angeles or otherwise, won’t occur until a later stage of this early season as opposed to something more imminent.

If there’s a deal to be had with Miami, the Bulls were said to hold interest in Heat sharpshooter Tyler Herro back when the Portland Trail Blazers were signaling a preference to find Herro a third team in any potential deal to send Damian Lillard to South Florida. Miami is in the midst of a seven-game winning streak to rise back up the Eastern Conference.

The Sixers now sit in prime position to pursue an All-Star talent like LaVine, with three additional first-round trade assets to play with — two future picks along with an unprotected swap, thanks to this month’s James Harden trade with the Clippers. Philadelphia also holds a collection of mid-sized salaries to aggregate for a maximum contract player such as LaVine. But Sixers officials have surely been encouraged by the team’s hot start behind Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey, while valuing the newfound depth as part of their Harden haul — most notably Robert Covington and Nicolas Batum.

It has always seemed more likely the Sixers continue to evaluate this roster in the context of Maxey’s rise into All-Star form, and perhaps All-NBA consideration, before acting too swiftly to acquire a player and eliminate the precious cap space Philadelphia values ahead of next summer — which no other contender, in the Sixers’ view, should be able to match. Front-office personnel who’ve overlapped with Philadelphia president Daryl Morey believe there are several players, likely a list of players, the Sixers would strongly consider moving on now, if they were to become available at this juncture of the young season. LaVine does not appear to fit that billing, even if he could be had closer to February’s trade deadline.

Bulls chief executive Artūras Karnišovas was a Morey lieutenant in Houston, before helping Tim Connelly and Calvin Booth plant the roots that became a championship team in Denver. For as long as Chicago has petered out of the playoff picture, his Bulls have resisted league-wide inquiries about trading their veterans, leaving a strong belief around the league that Chicago ownership has never been in favor of taking steps toward any type of rebuild. Various league personnel familiar with the situation now consider that stance to have changed. That the Bulls’ most advantageous path forward is clearly to recoup as many players with upside and as much draft capital as possible after forfeiting a pair of first-round picks to acquire Vučević, plus another first-round selection and two second-rounders to obtain DeRozan in a sign-and-trade.

DeRozan and the Bulls did not make meaningful progress in contract extension negotiations this summer, league sources told Yahoo Sports, which should put the veteran scorer, and six-time All-Star, squarely in trade candidacy as the calendar flips closer to February, as well.

If Chicago does intend to start a complete teardown and makeover, then Bulls guard and defensive stalwart Alex Caruso could possibly net Chicago its greatest return of any player on the roster. The sense around NBA decision-makers is that Caruso’s contract — still with another season at just under $10 million for 2024-25, plus his malleability alongside most players — could generate a market that touches most of the league, championship contenders and inexperienced playoff hopefuls alike. The Bulls have already required multiple first-round picks for the 29-year-old veteran when opposing teams have asked about Caruso’s availability. If his number of suitors were to indeed match the breadth of teams that checked with Portland about landing Jrue Holiday this fall, it’s not unreasonable to expect Caruso to fetch the Bulls a similar price point of draft capital, as Holiday netted the Blazers both a 2024 and 2029 first-round pick.