Latest buzz on Bulls’ Zach LaVine’s free agency from NBA combine:

LaVine free agency buzz features prominently at combine originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago:

The NBA Draft Combine is a place for young players to chase their dreams.

It’s also, along with NBA Summer League, the premier destination for league gossip, with executives from all 30 teams, coaches and agents gathering in the same location.

A prominent topic of conversation this week has been Zach LaVine’s future. Opinion – some of it educated, some of it guesswork – is varied on what the Chicago Bulls’ two-time All-Star guard will do when he hits unrestricted free agency on July 1.

But this much is certain: His return to the Bulls is no longer considered the slam dunk it once was.

Whether that stems from LaVine’s own exit interview with local reporters in late April or a genuine belief he will leave the franchise that still can pay him the most is unknown. What’s certain is that league gossip throughout this week has linked LaVine to at least four teams – Lakers, Trail Blazers, Mavericks, Hawks – with almost certainly more to follow.

LaVine, who is expected to have his arthroscopic knee surgery early next week, made it clear in his final media session that he will take his time to make his decision. The Bulls are fully expecting LaVine to take visits, be wined and dined and explore the unrestricted free agency he has earned.

Both Bulls president / chief operating officer Michael Reinsdorf and executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas have publicly stated their desire for LaVine to remain in Chicago long-term. Reinsdorf told NBC Sports Chicago that the franchise is willing to enter luxury tax territory for just the second time in its history to retain this core and compete for championships.

LaVine has made clear the importance to him of receiving a max contract. Karnišovas said in late April that he did not think LaVine’s upcoming procedure, which, at that time, was not certain or scheduled, would factor into negotiations.

The procedure is widely expected to be merely a clean-up scope. LaVine has told confidantes his knee at times feels like it has “loose cartilage.” An MRI taken in January showed no structural damage.

Still, there is speculation from rival executives whether or not the Bulls will extend LaVine the full maximum contract of five years and roughly $ 212 million. The public stances of Reinsdorf and Karnišovas suggest otherwise.

So does the fact the Bulls opted against a renegotiate-and-extend option last offseason and instead, with LaVine’s input, aggressively worked as an over-the-cap team to add DeMar DeRozan and Lonzo Ball via sign-and-trade acquisitions and then signed Alex Caruso with the mid-level exception.

LaVine acknowledged those moves as “huge” in his late April media session with reporters.

“It just shows that they (the Bulls front office) were ready to win. Obviously my first couple of years here it was tough to have that feeling. This year has been incredible, ”he said. “You’ve got to take everything into consideration. And obviously the team we have here is something you’ve got to consider, how good that we were this last year and moving forward. “

The Bulls know that losing LaVine for nothing would be a significant blow from both a basketball and business standpoint. The latter isn’t insignificant for a franchise that, according to several season-ticket holders, recently raised ticket prices for the first time in years.

Even if the fifth-year salary of $ 48.3 million looks untenable to some on paper, it must be viewed against the backdrop of the rising salary cap. And if recent NBA history has proven anything, it’s that most any contract is tradable at some point.

As for teams currently linked to LaVine through league gossip and speculation, only the Trail Blazers possess the ability to clear a max salary-cap slot. Even that would take several cost- and asset-cutting moves. Teams like the Lakers would need to execute a sign-and-trade, which would be complicated.

That’s why, when all is said and done, LaVine returning to the Bulls is still the safest bet – assuming that’s what the unrestricted free agent wants.

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