New contract means a whole new type of pressure for Bulls’ Zach LaVine

Zach LaVine had a different way of looking at his boost into a new tax bracket.

When the Bulls handed the All-Star guard a five-year, $215 million extension in July, there was heartfelt gratitude from LaVine but also a feeling of justification.

In LaVine’s mind, the max deal was earned, not gifted.

“I think it’s just a credit to my hard work,” LaVine said. “I think I’ve had the same work ethic and the same goals before the contract, after the contract.”

That’s a great attitude, but it’s about to be tested.

LaVine never has flinched when discussing pressure. If anything, he has welcomed those situations as obstacles that needed to be overcome to get to where he wanted to go.

Becoming the 17th-highest-paid player in the NBA when he’s not even the best player on his team, however, will be uncharted territory.

There are expectations with max players — all-or-nothing expectations that far too often are unobtainable. It’s NBA title-or-bust for LaVine as a Bull.

Just take a glance at some of the company LaVine keeps: Steph Curry will be the highest-paid player in the league this season at $48 million, and he has four rings. LeBron James is fourth at $44.4 million and also has four titles.

Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Khris Middleton and Anthony Davis are in the top 20, and they’ve all hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Then there’s the group that falls in the jury-is-still-out category.

Paul George, Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Jimmy Butler reside there.

But LaVine doesn’t want to find himself in the bad-contract-gone-worse area code. That’s the territory of John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard and Tobias Harris — all among the 20 highest paid with front offices that regretted doling out those deals. Three of those players eventually had a change of address.

The concerning part about that list is that, besides Harris, they’re all guards — and defensively challenged guards at that. Ring a bell? It’s a scouting report LaVine has carried for most of his first eight years.

There seemed to be a defensive awakening, however, last summer. LaVine was playing with Team USA and wanted to show a different mindset with that group. It carried into the NBA season with LaVine seemingly motivated by defensive-minded teammates such as Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso.

Then his left knee started acting up.

By February, LaVine was back to the all-too-familiar identity of score first, defend as an afterthought. The numbers verified that, and coach Billy Donovan admitted as much.

But the knee was a valid excuse, especially for a player making $19 million and change.

Max players don’t get excuses. Max players aren’t allowed to be one-and-done in the playoffs. Max players face scrutiny from media and fans on a nightly basis.

It will be interesting to see how LaVine handles that pressure, starting in a few weeks when camp begins.

Throughout his NBA career, the kid from Seattle has been one of the easiest All-Stars to deal with from a media standpoint.

He’s approachable, thoughtful in his answers and honest.

“Obviously, you can’t control everything with injuries, being traded, whatever it is, but I could always control my demeanor, my work ethic and what I brought to the game,” LaVine said. “I always pictured myself as the player that I am, and the player I’m going to be, continue to strive to be, and what comes with that is being compensated at that level.”

True, but with that lavish compensation comes a level of scrutiny that LaVine has never had to deal with.

Ready or not.

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