Zach LaVine is Already Carrying the Chicago Bulls and Setting Himself Up for a $200 Million Payday

The Chicago Bulls entered the season with many new faces and heightened expectations. But after Game 1, it was ol’ reliable Zach LaVine who stole the show.

LaVine dropped 34 points in Chicago’s 94-88 win over the Detroit Pistons. The All-Star is not only working to get the Bulls back into the playoffs but also attempting to force the team’s hand in paying him top dollar next summer.

Zach LaVine had an impressive season opener

Even though it was against the rebuilding Pistons, LaVine’s performance on Wednesday was nonetheless phenomenal. The 26-year-old went 11-of-17 from the field and a perfect 11-of-11 from the free-throw line. Twenty-three of his 34 points came in the second half, with 15 coming in the third quarter alone.

Chicago was down by as many as seven points halfway through the third quarter before LaVine took over. After the Pistons went up 57-50, the eighth-year guard scored or assisted on 15 straight points. Then, with the teams battling in the fourth quarter, he hit six free throws in the final minute to ice the game for the Bulls.

“This ain’t last year. We’re looking forward now,” said LaVine after the win. “It’s a whole new team. A whole new mindset. So, I’m excited that we grinded that one out. A win’s a win.”

LaVine doubled up DeMar DeRozan, who was Chicago’s next leading scorer with 17. Lonzo Ball had 12 points in his Bulls debut, while All-Star center Nikola Vucevic scored 15 points and chipped in 15 rebounds.

LaVine is setting himself up for a max contract

The Bulls committed over $80 million each to Ball and DeRozan this offseason while also trading for Vucevic and his remaining $46 million. But as it stands, LaVine is in line to pass them all next offseason.

The former UCLA Bruin really started to come into his own as a scorer in 2018-19, when he jumped from 16.7 to 23.7 points per game. His scoring average has increased every year since, punctuated by a career-high 27.4 in 2020-21. Better yet, his career year came with fewer shot attempts than either of the previous two seasons, with the 6-foot-5 guard shooting a career-best 50.7% from the field and 41.9% from three.

With clear signs of improvement on a yearly basis, LaVine’s 34 points on Wednesday are more forecast than fluke. As a result, it would be shocking to not see the All-Star fetch a max deal worth approximately $200 million next offseason. LaVine, who’s making $19.5 million in 2021-22, will become an unrestricted free agent after the season.

The Chicago Bulls need to win to keep LaVine

The way the NBA is set up, free agents can get the most years and most money from their own team. That certainly puts the Bulls at an advantage when it comes to retaining LaVine’s services.

However, money is far from the only thing LaVine cares about. Just days before training camp, the Olympic gold medalist told ESPN how important this season is for the franchise, as well as his own free-agent decision.

“This season going forward is going to be extremely crucial not just for me but for everybody. Winning would take care of everything.”

Zach LaVine

Chicago has put up a losing record in all four seasons with LaVine. Fortunately, the organization has shown a commitment to improving, whether it’s signing Ball and DeRozan, trading for Vucevic, or hiring executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and head coach Billy Donovan.

With LaVine continuing to ascend and a strong supporting cast now in place, anything besides a trip to the postseason will be a catastrophic disappointment. And it could mean the All-Star taking his talents away from the Windy City.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.

RELATED: DeMar DeRozan Silences Doubters Saying He Can’t Play Alongside Zach LaVine on the Chicago Bulls: ‘It’s Not Rocket Science’