McGraw: The Bulls blew it with Butler. Can they find offseason success with LaVine?

Maybe you've noticed already, but there's an awkward subtext to the Bulls' offseason.

A significant question is whether the Bulls will re-sign free agent Zach LaVine - and if it will take a maximum-salary contract offer to get it done.

In 2017, Jimmy Butler was two years away from hitting free agency. The Bulls traded him to Minnesota, called it a rebuild and cited not wanting to give Butler a max deal as one of the reasons.

This is relevant now because LaVine is not nearly as accomplished an NBA player as Butler. It should have been an easy call in 2017 to build around Butler, so why should anyone expect the Bulls to get it right this time? And what is the best decision for the future of the franchise?

Butler already led Miami to the NBA Finals in 2020 and might do it again. He scored 41 points Tuesday in the Heat's victory over Boston in the Eastern Conference finals opener.

With some smart moves, the Bulls probably could have matched Miami's success had they kept Butler. They had cap space in 2017 and master recruiter Dwyane Wade was under contract for another year.

This column isn't meant to bash LaVine. He's a two-time all-star, 27 years old, and the Bulls need to bring him back. But he's never won a playoff series, while Butler has won eight (two with the Bulls) and counting.

Butler is capable of being the best player on a championship-caliber team. As they approach the time for contract negotiations, the Bulls are hoping LaVine can get to that level someday.

Granted, there are plenty of complications to this story. The Bulls have made a change in their basketball operations staff since 2017 and it's possible Arturas Karnisovas wouldn't have made the same choice back then. But the people who sign the checks, Jerry and Michael Reinsdorf, are the same.

The previous basketball operations team of John Paxson and Gar Forman were feeling some heat back then for decisions to fire coach Tom Thibodeau and trade Derrick Rose. It's possible the rebuild wasn't really about Butler, but a chance to buy time for the front office while hoping to get lucky in the draft lottery. Not wanting to give Butler a max contract also could have been a business decision, a chance to build profits while the player payroll stayed low.

There were likely some personality conflicts involved. Butler is an emotional player and wasn't afraid to be critical of his bosses. A year after the initial move, he forced another trade to leave Minnesota.

A couple months ago, Butler argued with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra on the bench during a game, then had to be separated from teammate Udonis Haslem. Miami moved on from that incident and is now three wins away from returning to the Finals. It's probably safe to say the Heat appreciates Butler's competitive fire more than the Bulls did.

But the Butler saga is in the past. Keeping LaVine is the current task, or it will be in July.

Already rumors have been floated of interest from the Lakers and Portland. No other team can match what the Bulls can pay LaVine, so he's not likely to walk away for nothing. But rumors like those usually mean the player's agency is trying to drive up the price.

A full maximum contract for LaVine would be approximately five years and $210 million. The exact numbers won't be known until the summer, but based on projections, it would start at $36.3 million and peak at $47.9 million in the 2026-27 season.

To invoke a double-negative, this is not a no-brainer. Handing out bad contracts is a good way to ruin a team's future.

LaVine played through thumb and knee injuries last season, so it's tough to judge his progress, but there's obviously room to improve. In general, he needs to make winning plays more consistently on both ends of the floor. Getting stronger might allow him to finish more effectively through contact, since he can't rely on getting foul calls.

What should the Bulls do? Negotiate, for starters. Sell LaVine's camp on a future where the Bulls can continue to build a winning team around him, even after DeMar DeRozan retires.

Maybe that's a deal that starts near the max, but doesn't include the full raises every year. Maybe it starts at a number where the Bulls can use the full, non-taxpayer midlevel exception. Maybe there's an opt-out clause where the contract can be adjusted if LaVine exceeds expectations.

However it works out, the Bulls can't afford to get it wrong twice.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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