In early returns from the 2022 NBA Trade and Free Agency period, the Portland Trail Blazers have been linked with Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine. The two-time All-Star is an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Blazers have the potential to create a salary cap space to sign the same. They also need to restock talent after dumping several veterans mid-season last year. Could a Blazers-LaVine union work? The Blazer’s Edge Mailbag is wondering whether the possibility is real, and how good of an idea it might be. To wit, this question from Joseph:
Zach Lavine to Portland? I have mixed feelings. It’s one of those moves that makes me nervous looking at it but then if it was done, let’s be honest, I’d probably get really excited. What do you think of it? How true are the rumors and do you think it’d make us better to get Zach?
Joseph (not Joe) D
LaVine is poised for a hefty payday from someone. I doubt it’s Portland, though.
You can expect the Blazers to be linked with plenty of free agents this year, simply because they can create cap space, in theory. It’s in the best interests of players and their agents to create buzz. Portland’s an easy target for that kind of play. The Blazers will have interest in multiple players, I’m sure. They won’t mind being mentioned as a potential hotspot. But the distance between “linked with” and “playing for” is vast. Particularly so, in this case.
LaVine has improved his stock over the last couple of seasons. He’s earned twin All-Star berths, scoring 27.4 and 24.4 ppg with high percentages from the field and from the arc. Offensively, he’s a master artist. Do not sleep on his ability to score.
LaVine has also improved in non-scoring areas. His playmaking has taken a leap forward with the Bulls. In 2021-22, Chicago compiled a winning record and made the playoffs, a crucial item for LaVine’s portfolio.
At 26 years of age, LaVine is just entering his prime, with his best potential years ahead. He is, and will remain, a legit # 1 option, one of a couple dozen players who could lay claim to that distinction.
Even so, LaVine is not a comfortable fit in Chicago, at least not entirely. After an initial bout of excitement about their prospects, the Bulls got lampooned for their utter lack of defense this year. LaVine did not help that situation. No matter how many high-flying dunks and dagger threes make the Top Ten Plays reel, half the game is still played on the defensive end. LaVine has shown marginal improvement from his early seasons, but he’s still an exploitable defender.
That’s a huge issue for Portland. If the Blazers were to acquire LaVine, any claim to getting better on defense would be lip service, at best. Whether he played at shooting guard or small forward, he’d displace a better defender in the rotation. He’d also pair with Damian Lillard, who is not the best straight-up defender himself. Lillard looks good on defense when he’s surrounded by active, space-eating defenders. LaVine would scuttle that, leaving Lillard’s weaknesses fully exposed.
The Blazers just parted ways with CJ McCollum, a different kind of player than LaVine, but still massively talented. Lillard and McCollum shared the court seamlessly on offense, mostly because McCollum was willing to defer when necessary. Ultimately the Lillard-McCollum backcourt was not sustainable because they could not defend well enough as a pair.
One could argue that LaVine is a step up in offensive potential from McCollum — if nothing else because he’s hyper-athletic — but the gain is marginal. There’s no guarantee that LaVine and Lillard could share the ball and team leadership as cordially as Lillard and McCollum did. Inheriting the defensive liabilities of the former tandem is all but guaranteed. There’s no reason to think the outcome of this new, offense-heavy experiment would be different than the old one.
Signing LaVine would leave Blazers fans excited about potential at the start of every game. The buzz for the first six weeks of the season would be intense. It’d be like entering a casino for the first time. Anything could happen, including hitting the big jackpot!
It wouldn’t take long before the law of averages settled in. Bells and whistles make it seem like every pull of that slot machine handle is a win. The slowly-emptying wallet tells a different story.
Speaking of emptying … signing LaVine would require the Blazers to sacrifice some of their current lineup. In theory, the Blazers can clear roughly $ 50 million in cap space, assuming they’re willing to part ways with Eric Bledsoe. But they also have the following four cap holds and / or salary obligations:
Josh Hart $ 13 million (non-guaranteed contract)
Jusuf Nurkic $ 18 million (cap hold)
Anfernee Simons $ 11.9 million (cap hold)
Joe Ingles $ 19.5 million (cap hold)
LaVine currently makes $ 19.5 million per year. He’s not signing for that again. Renouncing Ingles would only clear part of the space needed to make a run at Zach. The Blazers would need to lose at least one, if not two, major players alongside Ingles. That makes the prospect far less appealing, even if you regard LaVine as a generational offensive talent.
Unless something weird happens, or the Blazers decide to go a different way entirely with their franchise, I don’t see Zach LaVine joining the fold anytime soon. The cost is too high and the improvement is too speculative to make this deal work.
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