Updated: Aug 7, 2019
Welcome back to the Business Casual Basketball "Salary Series."
In these assorted posts, we will take a look at a particular player or team with an interesting salary structure.
For example, certain contracts around the league have with interesting incentives, rare escalating, or declining dollar amounts, or vary significantly from typical market value.
When it comes to teams, there will be a deep dive on their spending habits, how they got to their current position, and what they can do to take advantage of their spending power. Conversely, if they are deep into luxury tax territory, we will look at what they can do to mitigate the damage as much as possible, both short-term and long-term.
For the next few weeks, we're going to zoom in on some of the contract extensions that were signed before this season started and how they will influence their teams heading into next season when they will actually take effect.
We've finally arrived at the curious case of Zach Lavine. After receiving a sizable contract offer in 2018 restricted Free Agency, the Bulls matched and locked him into their long term plans. Fully healed from his devastating ACL tear a couple years ago, he is back to his high-flying, lethal scoring ways. Can he really live up to the enormous investment Chicago placed on him? It's time to review the details so we can find out for sure.
At only age 24, Zach Lavine has already cemented his place among the most polarizing and athletic basketball specimens in recent memory. His shining moment came during the 2015 Dunk Contest, where he pulled out a bag full of ridiculous aerial maneuvers that very few players in NBA history could have pulled off successfully. 2016 was legendary as well because it featured a challenger that actually made Lavine work for his prize (and arguably should have won) but 2015 was the year that Lavine officially announced his arrival to the big league. His brilliance morphed from a simple concept to palpable potential.
I mean, how can you not be blown away by this showing?
It's doubtful that anyone watching made it through any of these acts without suffering a mini-meltdown. He single handedly revived the significance of the dunk contest for two years in a row and forced us all to sit and wonder...how good can this young prospect out of UCLA become?
Over the next few years, he certainly gave us all a lot to ponder. He steadily improved as a long range shooter, starting out as a mediocre 34% his rookie season, before topping out at 38% his last year in Minnesota. The scoring prowess stretched far beyond the limitations of a basic sharpshooter, however. Before going down with that brutal ACL tear halfway through the '16-'17 campaign, he was posting above average marks at the rim, in the mid range, and from three. He was transforming into an ideal three level scorer in his 3rd year as a professional basketball player.
His efficiency at the rim dropped a bit in 2016-2017, but he made up for it with a vastly improved mid range game. He finished with a true shooting mark of 57%, which is still the highest of his career so far. Obviously, the big question here becomes, does all that make him worthy of a $19.5 million annual salary through 2022? Things weren't quite clear on that front when he left the Timberwolves and we still might not have a concrete answer years later. Things are starting to come into focus, though.
Questions and Answers
When attempting to determine this guard's true value to a NBA team, let's focus first on his primary skill. Lavine has always thrived as a score-first off guard. Back in Minnesota, his first, second, and third duty as the starting SG was to put the ball in the basket. To be fair, he did a pretty good job at that.
In that clip against Orlando, he really shows off his insane athleticism. It's a major benefit when he is looking to be aggressive and head towards the rim, which is pretty often. His offensive game features constant quick twitch movements that keep his defender off balance. In this instance, he has no problem making Even Fournier look like he has the defensive chops of Enes Kanter. He's also fairly proficient with the use of his left hand, so he can finish on either side of the hoop. Whether he's coming off a screen, or using a straight isolation possession, Lavine can get to any spot of the floor in short order. He hasn't always been the best converting when he gets there, but he is going to get there 90% of the time.
And when helpless victims overcommitted to the drive, bad things happened. Observe noted perimeter perimeter defender Kyle Anderson in his supposedly natural habitat...
Once again, he uses that supreme bounce to create seperation off the drive and transitions into a clean 18 foot jumper. Anderson is left in the dust after that compromised defensive position. With those hips turned at such an extreme angle, there was no hope for recovery.
Of course, we can't forget about the long ball, the centerpiece of any modern offensive skillset. He's not shy about letting it fly, and although he's not a sure thing out there, you can't leave him on or off ball. 17.7% of his three point attempts in '16-'17 were of the pull up variety and he hit 35.5% of those, per NBA.com/stats.
Like I said, he's not shy whatsoever. He will let it fly regardless of the coverage or location. That serves as a positive or a negative, depending on your prerogative.
Like any piece of local currency, there is another side of this coin. Unfortunately for Zach and his Wolves teams, you can't camp out on one part of the game like it's American Football.
According to basketball reference, Minnesota ranked 30th, 28th, and 27th in defensive rating between his rookie year and his third year. He was far from the only problem there, but he certainly wasn't the solution. The analysis on this side of his game will be kept to a minimum, because we are pretty aware of his shortcomings here and it's much harder to quantify defensive impact. To sum it all up, he has bounced between a net negative and a big net negative on defense whenever he was on the floor. He started out with a -2.7 defensive box plus minus in year one, and he has made a massive leap up to a very impressive...-1.7 rating there. The sarcasm has arrived everyone and there is lots of it. The Timberwolves and Bulls basically made peace with this deficiency in his game and it's ok, as long as he is flanked by capable defenders at other positions to compensate. Luckily, there is an up and coming rim protector in Chicago these days and his name is Wendell Carter Jr. It's not too big of a deal now because we know his firm limitations and how they can be leveraged during games.
Speaking of the present day, he actually improved as a playmaker this season. Disclaimer: His 2017-2018 campaign as a whole will be thrown to the wind, because of his recovery from a ACL tear. But yes, he brings as passing prowess as you could want from his position. He was miscast as a point guard in spurts early on, but it was quickly discovered that that was a big mistake. He registered a career high in assists at 4.5 and even finished with a 22.5% assist percentage mark for '18-'19.
He will probably never be capable of advanced reads like Harden and LeBron, but he can find the open man when the timing is appropriate and that's perfect for his role.
The simple action Chicago runs for him here is more than enough to break down the entire Pacers defense. The gravity he exudes off of the Holiday pindown is so great, that he draws three defenders. Joseph, Bogdonavic, and Collison are taken completely out of the play after extending out too far to run Lavine off the line. That leaves two players- Turner and Sabonis to guard three Bulls players. Two plus two equals four, so Cameron Payne ends up with an open jumper after Lavine makes the read on time and on target.
Now that we have established that Lavine is an incredibly skilled player, let's throw some money into the mix.
Finding a Niche
The real Zach Lavine debate began last Summer, when the Sacramento Kings swooped in to offer a rich offer sheet worth $78 million over four years, because let's face it, they had nothing better to do with the cash at the time. He was only season into his Chicago tenure and it was rough, to say the least. It's one thing to know a players value in a vacuum, but when you throw injuries into the already complicated equation, the correct course of action is difficult to determine. Through the duration of his rookie contract, he hadn't yet proved to be worth near a maximum contract. The Kings knew that going in, but banked on Lavine's ability to recover and reach his absolute ceiling somewhere along the way. The only way to snag a restricted free agent is to overpay and scare off the team holding their rights. They hoped that Chicago would flinch just long enough to pick up a young scorer with loads of potential that can be paired with prized guard De'Aaron Fox.
The Bulls called the bluff and matched the lucrative offer. Now Lavine is locked in for the next three years at that flat $19.5 million salary figure. That makes him the 9th highest paid player at his position and the 2nd highest earner on his own team, behind only Otto Porter Jr. There aren't even any incentives attached at any point. One benefit of this type of deal is that it does not include the common 5% or 8% annual raises, so the natural rise of the salary cap coupled with the inevitable growth that is sure to occur in his game should provide decent odds of a positive value contract up until free agency hits at age 27. Going into '18-'19, the mission was clear. With a clean bill of health, it was up to him to provide confidence in the Bulls front office that they made the right decision matching that Sacramento offer. What followed was the best year yet for the 6'6" guard. He upped his usage rate to 30%, and remained very efficient in the process.
The biggest challenge for Lavine and the Bulls now is figuring out where he falls in the NBA hierarchy. Right now, he is the #1 option for this team. Everything begins and ends with him when it comes to wins and losses. That might not be the best thing for this team as they inch ever closer to playoff contention in the coming years. His style of play and salary match that of someone who is a second or third option for a contending team. Going forward, that's probably where he will find the most success.
Upcoming Gameplan for the Chicago Bulls
If we're talking big picture, Chicago is in a very good position, money wise. They don't really have any egregious contracts on their books. It's tempting to put Porter Jr. into that category, but he only has one more guaranteed year at $27.2 million, before hitting his player option in '20-'21 worth $28.4 million. He had some nice moments including scoring a career high 37 points on February 13th against Memphis. He's probably only slightly overpaid at this point. Robin Lopez currently has a free agent cap hold of $21.5 million, but he won't get anywhere near that kind of money again whether he remains with Chicago, or moves on to another team.
That leaves Lavine as the man in charge right now. Since his contract will not increase in value until he gets a new deal in 2022 and he is coming off of a career year, that makes him extremely valuable. This type of deal is very similar to the one Victor Oladipo received from Oklahoma City back in 2016. Check out the Turner extension post for more info on that one. The Bulls are looking to tinker with this roster until they find the right combination and they might be closer than we think. Carter Jr. and Markkanen are already major steals on their rookie deals and protect to be major building blocks along with Lavine going to the decade. They have $20.8 million to play with this Summer, but it will most likely be used to take on bad contracts attached to draft picks, or fill out the back end of the roster. This squad is not quite ready to make a run at big time free agents, but the way things are progressing over there, it won't be too much longer before they have a legitimate case.
In some ways, the Kings really did the Bulls a favor last Summer. Since the Lavine contract does not escalate, it reduces the pressure to play himself into a positive return on that investment. It also opens up more room on the back end for the team to pursue premier free agents that become available. His handsomely paid teammate Otto Porter is a prime example of what happens when you're blessed with a large offer sheet that is probably far above your current value...he has been getting just over $1 million of a raise each season, but it's much less of a hassle to a team like Chicago than it was to Washington before he was traded.
The timing was excellent as well. Only a handful of team had cap space, so it reduced the number of suitors and Sac Town wasn't forced to go above and beyond other competitors to win the bid. If Lavine became a restricted free agent this Summer, things could have turned out much differently. 18 teams can open up > $10 million of space this offseason and that might have resulted in a $23 million deal for Lavine and 5% annual raises. That would have tightened up the books much faster in the Windy City.
Overall, this deal that was secured in 2018 is much less of a burden than initially thought. Many thought that Sacramento was out of their right minds (per usual) for offering an unproven, athletic guard almost $80 million coming off of a major injury. But what a difference year makes. Now, the Bulls are happy to have such a gifted on the roster to usher in the next generation of their basketball organization.
The path forward is clear. Continue to groom Lavine into a legitimate 3rd option on a contending team, draft a solid PG on June 20th to pair with him, enjoy two and three more years of rookie contract values on Markkanen and Carter Jr, respectively, and keep a lookout for any stars that become available on the open market.
These guys are not ready to contend just yet, but the foundation is set. Zach Lavine has proven just how talented he is over the last 12 months and why he his worth a $78 million dollar gamble.
All-Star Weekend 2016 holds his shining moment for now, but a day is coming soon that is sure to eclipse it for all the right reasons.
*Salary figures obtained via Early Bird Rights*