Zach LaVine has officially become undervalued in NBA trade rumors

I have spent a lot of time on FaceBook Marketplace. From browsing free listings to bartering about five-dollar margins that make up less than 10% of the price of said item, I have done my time in the slop pile. In fact, few things have ever prepared me better to talk about the NBA trade and free agent market than trying to convince someone that a painted plastic table could be considered “redwood” because it was dark orange with a wood grain pattern. I’m the Danny Ainge of the online selling world.

However, once in a blue moon, you find something magical — be it a full-sized dinner table for 30 dollars, a 20-dollar set of professional kitchen knives, or an 11-dollar Ben Simmons jersey — that makes you question how it became so undervalued, so much so that you overthink it on the subway ride down to pick it up.

Some days, you were right to have been suspicious, and you’ve wasted a day on a sewing machine with no thread pickup. Other days, you, the Golden State Warriors, get offered Zach LaVine for nothing but salary filler.

You smile graciously, you mute the call to confer with your front office, and you say…


How did we get here? How did a 29-year-old All-Star with the ability to generate shots from distance and at the rim become a negative asset in the face of most of the league? Why would the Warriors rather cut Chris Paul than throw him into a trade and get a possible contributor like they once did to acquire D’Angelo Russell through sign-and-trading Kevin Durant?

The obvious answer is the price tag that comes with LaVine and the five-year, $215 million dollar contract he signed following the 2021-22 season. With this and next season on the books, along with a player option in 2026-27 for a shade under $50 million, LaVine’s contract is widely seen as exactly the type of bad deal that has become an anchor under the new CBA.

Except it hasn’t really.

Ignoring the player, Zach LaVine is tied as the 18th highest-paid player in the NBA (per Spotrac). The Timberwolves, Suns, and Sixers have three of the top 25 contracts on their cap table in per year average. The Pacers, Celtics, and Bucks have two each.

Even in the current NBA, accommodating big deals is not impossible. While the Suns and Bucks were both first round exits, the Wolves and Pacers were both conference finalists. Boston is about to be shelling out the top two contracts in NBA history and are reigning NBA Champions; the Sixers are paying huge sums in order to make it out of the second round for the first time since 2001.

That only leaves the question of health. LaVine played a meager 25 games last year before an ankle injury — and subsequent surgery — ended a season that had Bulls fans begging for release from the middling hell that GM Arturas Karnisovas has led them to.

Except, saying LaVine certainly isn’t worth his contract over that situation doesn’t stand up to a deeper dive, either. Let’s think of the Sixers, who just caught the big fish of this offseason in Paul George. PG signed a four-year $213 million deal. That is more than the total value of Zach LaVine’s contract, which he is two years into, on one less year.

However, they’re not much different in health. Over the past four years, Paul George has played 215 games in the regular season, only eclipsing the 60 games played mark in last year’s campaign. Zach LaVine, on the other hand, has played 227, with this year’s 25 dragging down his average after two straight years of playing in over three-quarters of the Bulls’ games.

Now, Paul George is unquestionably a better player than Zach LaVine. He is far better defensively, even if he is not the same lockdown, two-way superstar he used to be. George is, historically speaking, also a better creator for others than LaVine, although their assist percentages were the same last year. From credentials to reputation to podcasts, Paul George has LaVine beat.

Still, the fact remains that the far older, more injury-prone player is now on a longer-term deal, while the player that had the best year of his career only a year and a half ago is failing to get salary-dumped because his market is so bad.

This all brings us back to the question at hand: why? The two obvious reasons of money and health don’t fully pass any real examination. Was it the Bulls’ fault for doing a publicized character assassination of the player they planned to trade? I’m sure that plays into it. Was it intelligent of them to anonymously accuse LaVine through the media of getting surgery to decrease his own value? Absolutely not, are you kidding me!?

But, while both of those things explain the breakdown of the relationship between Chicago and Zach, they don’t explain the league-wide pessimism. Not even the typical trade-averse “it was too much to give up” logic works here. Again, the Warriors were offered a salary dump of their own in Andrew Wiggins’ deal along with Chris Paul’s expiring and they said no! They were giving up negative value and they still rejected the trade!

Now, it’s worth noting that the whole league doesn’t have to like LaVine. The Bulls only need one team to show interest to get a deal done. The Lakers have reported interest in Jerami Grant, despite having admittedly worse players of his ilk on the roster. Any trade for Grant would include real assets to the rebuilding Trail Blazers. Instead, why don’t the Lakers try to acquire a shot creator — one who they’ve previously tried to trade for — for pennies on the dollar (or for pennies on the DLo).

That, however, leaves us with the obvious truth: sometimes things are unexplainable. Sometimes you dig your heels into the ground, you look around and you say “I’m not wrong, the world is wrong.” There is absolutely no universe in which Zach LaVine is not worth taking a shot on for a team with limited options to improve, especially one trying to keep aging superstars happy.

The perception of LaVine has swung too far in the opposite direction from the reality.

There is no purely basketball-based answer to the question of why no one wants LaVine, none that isn’t without its own obvious contradiction at least. A 29-year-old shooting guard only one year out from averaging career highs in defensive and total win shares, who has shot well above league average from three, both on and off ball, is being treated like a bed bug-infested futon being sold on the internet with low-res photos. It’s simply baffling.

It seems the two sides are headed for a divorce here no matter what. LaVine wants to be elsewhere, and the Bulls will finally acquiesce to fans’ wishes and begin a rebuild behind their two young guards, Coby White and Ayo Dosumnu, and recent draft pick Matas Buzelis.

However, while it seems like the perception of LaVine could not be worse, sometimes, we let dollar amounts dehumanize players. We often lose track of who is standing behind the numbers, we let little boxes on Basketball-Reference tell us everything there is to know and mold it to fit our narratives. Somehow, the numbers have now have ceased to matter in the face of one constant narrative thundercloud above LaVine’s head.

And this is not to say that Zach will instantaneously return to All-Star form or even reach the heights his contract should imply. It also doesn’t mean that he’s capable of being a team’s best player or taking a middling roster to championship expectations. He is, however, not the negative asset he’s been branded as, and he is absolutely the best available option for teams looking for real difference-makers on the market.

We’ve overadjusted. We forgot that good players earn good money, and that good players can have down years. Zach LaVine is a great player. You don’t dump great players. You don’t attach first round picks to them. You certainly don’t say no when they’re given to you for free.

So yeah, NBA GMs are wrong. And there will likely be at least a few of them who will regret passing over Zach LaVine when this saga is over.

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