By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — As coach Fred Hoiberg met with the media just prior to the start of practice late Sunday morning, a group of Bulls walked through a series of plays on the basket nearest him.
Included among them in the five-on-zero non-contact work was Zach LaVine, the 22-year-old guard and athletic marvel. Sporting a T-shirt and sweats instead of the practice jerseys and shorts that his teammates donned, LaVine finished a sequence with a two-handed dunk off two feet. It was an innocent, easy flush, nothing of the sort that he flashed in becoming a two-time dunk champion.
It was encouraging nonetheless.
The slam came 254 days after LaVine tore his left ACL on Feb. 3 while still with the Timberwolves. Both he and the Bulls have been enthused by his rehabilitation progress. LaVine currently has no soreness in his surgically repaired left knee, he’s begun “unpredictable movements,” Hoiberg said, and he remains on track to be cleared for contact in the latter half of November.
“I’m very excited about Zach,” Hoiberg said. “You can tell how much he wants to be out there with our guys. Every day he comes in and says, ‘Coach, I’m ready to go out there.’ Be patient, it’s a process. We have to make sure he 100 percent healthy, even though he feels no symptoms right now at all.”
Before LaVine returns, a notable deadline looms. LaVine is eligible for a rookie contract extension prior to the deadline Monday evening. The expectation is that LaVine and the Bulls won’t come to an extension agreement by then. The sides have held discussions in recent weeks, the lines of communication will remain open until Monday night and deadlines have a funny way of creating a middle ground. But both parties seem content with pushing this matter into restricted free agency next July.
There’s reason on each side to delay. Holding the rights to match any offer next July and with LaVine having yet to play a game for them, the Bulls have no reason to offer a max or near-max extension now. Holding off also would also allow the Bulls some extra cap flexibility in free agency come July 1, because LaVine’s cap hold would be less than the new salary he garners.
From LaVine’s perspective, he hasn’t yet produced at a level on par with a max-contract player, but if his play can ascend to the next level this season, he could build a strong case toward receiving one. LaVine averaged 18.9 points on 45.9 percent shooting and 38.7 percent 3-point shooting as the third offensive option in 47 games with Minnesota last season before his injury. He’ll be the primary option in Chicago and have every last chance to produce and showcase his skills.
Bulls management has made clear that they didn’t trade a star like Jimmy Butler in June to acquire LaVine and then let him leave after a year. They plan to match any offer sheet that LaVine signs with another team next July. If it gets that far, the question will be whether LaVine and the Bulls find a common ground financially or another team forces their hand, although the Bulls are comfortable in that sense because it projects to be a salary cap-strapped environment across the league.
What isn’t in question is how much LaVine means to the Bulls’ rebuild. With an easygoing personality, LaVine has embraced the expectations that come with being the highest-profile player in the nation’s third-biggest market while the organization undergoes a rebuild that will often be ugly.
He has also appeared unconcerned with when his lucrative second contract is signed.
“I’m trying to get better,” LaVine said at media day in September. “My worth for the team, I want to go out there and prove other people wrong. I want to go prove to my family, we play this game every day just for that reason. I’m gonna prepare for this the same way I have, trying to improve, trying to get better, trying to win games. So whether I get a contract this year or not, I know it’s going to happen one way or another. So I’m really happy with the situation.”
For weeks, Hoiberg and his staff have been diagramming sets they believe will best utilize LaVine’s skill set. Many of the actions run for wing Justin Holiday, the team’s leading scorer in the preseason, will turn into touches for LaVine.
Hoiberg has also praised LaVine for taking coaching well and expressed his desire to coach him for years to come. That will almost certainly be the case, whether a new contract is agreed upon prior to Monday night or next July.
“He can’t wait, his teammates can’t wait and the staff obviously is very excited to get him back out there,” Hoiberg said.
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. He’s also the co-host of the @LockedOnBulls podcast, which you can subscribe to on iTunes and Stitcher. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.