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Bulls stuck in ‘No Man’s Land’

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Anthony L. Cuaycong

Courtside

Heading into the offseason, the Bulls privately expressed optimism that they would be able to re-sign free-agent-to-be Zach LaVine to a reasonable contract. Bolstering their positive outlook was the fact that he began his 2017-18 campaign recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament tear and ended it with knee tendinitis, managing to play only 24 games in between. His youth gave him value, but his reliance on his athleticism to prop up his offense and seeming absence of interest at the other end of the court were red flags that they felt would give potential suitors pause.

As things turned out, the Bulls did have competition for LaVine’s services. In fact, the Kings’ offer of $78 million over four years made him a strong candidate for departure. For all his upside, he didn’t appear to be worth burning close to a fifth of their salary cap on. That said, they knew they ultimately had no choice but to match the numbers. Letting him walk away with nothing in return would serve to further alienate a fan base who thought they got pennies to the dollar when they sent lone All-Star Jimmy Butler to the Timberwolves last year. He was the centerpiece of their returns from that deal, never mind that it also netted them All-Rookie First Team selection Lauri Markkanen and eventual starter Kris Dunn.

Certainly, the Bulls were as shocked as the rest of the world when the Kings sought to lure LaVine with the generous terms. After all, the latter already had Buddy Hield and Bojan Bogdanovic playing the same position. In any case, the incumbent employers acted accordingly, prompting the two-time Slam Dunk champion to change his tune from “disappointed that I had to get an offer sheet from another team” to “can’t wait to get back on the court with my brothers in front of the greatest fans in the world.” His emotions went from one extreme to the other in less time than it took for Lazarus to rise from the grave.

The good news is that the Bulls remain significantly under the cap even counting LaVine’s paychecks. At the very least, their favorable position gives them the leeway to plot their strategy moving forward. With the East suddenly more open following LeBron James’ exit, they could ramp up their recruitment and take in more costly talent in hopes of improving their lot. Alternatively, they could go the conservative route and strike only when marquee pieces are on the board.

On the flipside, the Bulls don’t quite possess the cachet to entice big names — not with general manager Gar Heard’s spotty slate across the table, and not when LaVine is the best they can show on the floor. Which, in a nutshell likely keeps them stuck in No Man’s Land, not too bad to snag valuable lottery picks, but not too good to realistically cast a moist eye on the hardware. In stifling the Kings, they may have simply prolonged their agony.

 

Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994.