Bulls’ Zach LaVine has a deep conversation about being a max playerJoe Cowleyon November 18, 2021 at 10:22 pm

It’s not a secret to the All-Star guard that critics – starting right here – have questioned the idea of maxing him in free agency next offseason. He discussed it one-on-one, explained where he’s coming from, and may have just pulled off one heck of a sales pitch.

PORTLAND – The barbershop was open.

Zach LaVine was willing to sit in the chair, put the safe answers and cliches away, and have a good old fashioned sports debate.

What made the one-on-one unique was the debate was about him and his value as an NBA player headed toward a max contract.

Not a topic most professional athletes are willing, or even feel the need to sit down with a writer and discuss.

Then again, that’s why the Bulls writers have always respected LaVine. He’s an All-Star that still handles himself like the kid next door.

“You have a job to do, and I get that,” LaVine said. “It’s your opinion, and I’ve always respected that.”

That didn’t mean he agreed with it.

And I respected that.

LaVine and the max always made me nervous. Enough so that I had been very outspoken over the last year about the Bulls not maxing him if they could avoid it.

“I’m basing it on history,” I told LaVine, as we walked towards the locker room in Portland. “Name me an off-guard who was not a two-way player that was maxed, and I’ll tell you all the teams that regret that decision and never won a title … cause there’s a bunch of them.”

LaVine nodded his head in agreement the entire time.

Then he stopped.

“I get the argument,” LaVine said. “But you’re assuming that I’m done.”

And just like that the kid next door had a point. One that had staying power with me, and enough to start swaying my take.

The business of sports writing used to be about accountability. A strong opinion should be able to be debated by the subject person-to-person, face-to-face. It’s an art that’s been slowly dying for years.

It’s not a tough-guy mentality to face an athlete you are critical of and discuss it. It’s just being a human.

Discuss it we did.

“How’s my defensive rating now?” LaVine said. “It’s better. What does that tell you?”

He wasn’t wrong. Through the first 14 games of last season, LaVine ranked 415th in defensive rating (117.5) and 211th amongst NBA starters. Through the first 15 games a season later, LaVine had a 103.4 defensive rating, putting him 79th among starting players and 199th overall.

“It’s your job to have opinions, and one of my jobs as a professional athlete and a guy that’s extremely competitive is to go out there and try and prove people wrong,” LaVine said. “Am I going to get that right every time? No, but that’s the fun of sports. I get to have chips on my shoulder and bring that extra stuff to the game.

“Look, I get it, I do want to improve on everything, and I know that I haven’t had the best narrative for defense. I know people know me as a hard worker, a great guy, someone that goes out there and can obviously score the hell out the ball, but I want to be known as a winner and a complete player. I mean I’m not putting all this work in just to be a regular guy in the NBA. I think I’m proving that each and every year.”

He’s not lying.

LaVine looks the part of a player that can still rip out the soul of an opposing defender with his shot-making, but is also now willing to rip the ball.

He’s had some moments where he still loses his man deeper in the possession this year, but since playing the role of defensive stopper for Team USA in the Summer Olympics, the eye test alone shows how well he’s been active on defense.

So of course he had to be asked why now? What took so long?

“There wasn’t one point that I just said, ‘Let me work on it,’ but also nothing happens overnight,” LaVine said. “So many people in this basketball culture, like even draft picks, you’re supposed to be who you’re supposed to be. That’s not how it happens. Some guys mature later. I’m going to be a worker regardless. I’m going to be a worker until I retire, and that’s what keeps me going. Little things that the media says, I critic myself, the way coaches and other players view you, that all adds fuel to the fire.”

Expensive fuel at that.

Maxing LaVine would be five year, $210 million. That puts him with the game’s elite: Steph Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, Paul George, Jimmy Butler. But there’s also some clunkers in that area code: John Wall, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris.

I’m now willing to bet he’ll work to being in that first group. I’ll take that leap with him.

But there will be a cost. In adding almost $200 million in contracts last summer, the Bulls gave LaVine the best supporting cast he’s ever had. Unless he forfeits money, those days are gone. His response to that double-edged sword.

“I’ve got a great agent in Rich Paul, and I think he’s going to take care of all that,” LaVine said laughing.

Then there’s also a scenario in which he could be eligible for the “super max” if he makes All-NBA. The $210-million price tag could go to $230 million if all the boxes are checked.

That’s still a price that’s hard to swallow.

We’ll discuss it when the time comes.

The barbershop chair is always open.

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