Bulls have checkbook open as NBA free-agency begins, LaVine expected to cash in

The NBA free agent negotiating period begins at 5 p.m. Thursday.

How long after that will Zach LaVine pass Michael Jordan?

Assuming he re-signs with the Bulls, as expected, LaVine will become the highest-paid athlete in Chicago sports history. Jordan holds the previous mark for highest single-season salary at $33.14 million in 1997-98.

Next-highest is Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward, who made $28.167 million in 2017 and ‘18. Third on the list will be DeMar DeRozan, who is set to earn $27.3 million this season, slightly ahead of Otto Porter's $27.25 million in 2019-20.

The expectation is the Bulls will offer LaVine a maximum contract, or very close to it. There were reports Wednesday the NBA salary cap for 2022-23 will be set at $123.655 million, slightly higher than expected.

That means the maximum salary level will also rise, since it's tied to 30% of the salary cap. A full max contract for a player in LaVine's category is roughly $215 million over five years. It would start at $39.1 million and top out at $48.97 million.

The pros and cons are pretty straightforward here: LaVine is a two-time all-star and the Bulls need to bring him back to have much chance of moving closer to Finals contention. On the other hand, he's never received a single vote for MVP or an All-NBA team, and spent his first three years with the Bulls showing he needs a better team around him to succeed.

Will offering LaVine a max deal impede the chances of the Bulls building a good team around him? It might, but there are plenty of huge salaries around the NBA.

The increased salary cap will also give the Bulls more room to maneuver in free-agency. Their primary means of adding players is the non-taxpayer midlevel exception, which should be worth around $10.5 million and can be split among multiple players.

If the Bulls exceed the luxury tax apron of $156.98 million after LaVine signs and the roster is complete, then they can't use the non-taxpayer MLE and would be limited to a smaller midlevel exception of roughly $6.5 million.

There should be plenty of room to pay LaVine a max salary, use the non-taxpayer MLE and sign a few players to minimum deals.

As it stands, the Bulls have $102.7 million in salary commitments among 11 players, including rookie Dalen Terry.

If they want to get clever and use Derrick Jones Jr. or Troy Brown Jr. in sign-and-trades or do any sort of deals to absorb more salary, then LaVine might have to accept a smaller deal. But that probably won't happen.

• There was a surprising development Wednesday that could affect the Bulls free-agent targets. Orlando declined to make a qualifying offer to center Mo Bamba, making him an unrestricted free agent.

The Magic has a relatively low payroll, so the team didn't figure to let Bamba walk away for nothing in return. It turns out, Bamba will be free walk, according to reports. He was the No. 6 pick of the 2018 draft, chosen one slot before Wendell Carter Jr. The 7-footer is coming off his best season, averaging 10.6 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks.

Even with backup center Tony Bradley coming back, the Bulls might be in the market for a center to back up Nikola Vucevic and maybe take over the starting job down the road. General manager Marc Eversley said on draft night the Bulls want to address basket protection.

So Bamba could make sense. The other top options at center are likely the Clippers' Isaiah Hartenstein and Phoenix's JaVale McGee. Mitchell Robinson figures to stay in New York after the Knicks traded Nerlens Noel to Detroit.

Another qualifying offer surprise was Sacramento declining to make guard Donte DiVincenzo a restricted free agent.

• Two free agent targets for the Bulls were mentioned here yesterday, Toronto's Chris Boucher and Memphis' Kyle Anderson. Of the two, Anderson seems more certain to change teams in free-agency. The Raptors may try to re-sign both Boucher and former Bull Thad Young, but all of those players are free to do what they want.

• The competition in the Eastern Conference might have gotten tougher with news of the trade sending Dejounte Murray from San Antonio to Atlanta for Danilo Gallinari and three first-round picks.

There's been speculation Gallinari will be waived by the Spurs and become someone the Bulls could pursue.

• Some of the biggest stories to watch when free-agency begins are whether Stevenson High School grad Jalen Brunson jumps from Dallas to New York, and what happens to Phoenix center DeAndre Ayton. He can be a restricted free agent, but there has been talk both sides are open to a change.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

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