What to do about Zach LaVine? And what’s the right price for DeMar DeRozan? 5 questions the Chicago Bulls must answer.

After crashing out of the play-in tournament, the Chicago Bulls enter the summer with a series of crucial questions ahead.

Yes, this might feel like a bit of deja vu.

This isn’t how things are supposed to work. A season is meant to answer questions, not create them — and certainly not repeat them ad nauseam until players, executives and fans alike are sick of hearing the same handful of queries. But the Bulls are back in the same position, mulling over the same contracts and considering the same trades as they hope to take a greater leap this summer than they did in the last one.

So these five questions might seem familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less pressing.

1. Will Artūras Karnišovas stand on his word?

This one is the most pressing because it defines every step that follows. Throughout his exit interview last month, Karnišovas pledged change. The executive vice president of basketball operations acknowledged the severity of the team’s failure this season, accepted that the current group isn’t working and stated repeatedly that “everything is on the table” to make the roster right.

But what does that mean? The most hopeful might take those statements to reflect an impending rebuild, a blow-it-up plan that could wash clean the memory of the last three seasons of disappointment.

The reality is likely more conservative. The front office still hopes to re-sign DeMar DeRozan. Most of the starting lineup at the end of the season — Nikola Vučević, Coby White and Alex Caruso — remains under contract for next season.

This season made it clear the Bulls can’t improve by fiddling around in the margins. The additions of Torrey Craig and Jevon Carter made a negligible impact. While Craig was a valuable rotation player when healthy, Carter was a complete nonfactor.

With two expiring contracts and several interesting trade assets (most notably Zach LaVine), the Bulls are in position to enter negotiations on the front foot. But that relies on Karnišovas setting a standard for aggressiveness and committing to it for the entire offseason.

2. What do you do about Zach LaVine?

Bulls guard Zach LaVine heads to the locker room before a game against the Warriors on Jan. 12, 2024, at the United Center. (John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune)

Nearly six months have passed since LaVine first expressed his openness to a trade. It’s remarkable how seamlessly that possibility shifted from inevitable to impossible as LaVine’s season was derailed by injury.

But it’s clear nothing should change between the parties this summer. LaVine didn’t get better. And the Bulls — despite a valiant attempt to dig out of an early 5-14 hole — also did not get better. Nothing about this season suggests LaVine won’t face the exact same frustrations next season.

And for all these reasons, trading LaVine has become the absolute top priority for the Bulls. The issue is how — and if — the front office could actually get a deal done.

Karnišovas has made it clear this isn’t a “trade at any cost” situation. He wants a good deal in return for the team’s maximum contract player. He balked at offers at the trade deadline, choosing to ride out the season with LaVine recovering in California rather than make a trade he didn’t believe in.

If the Bulls start the season with LaVine on the roster, it would trap them in a full year of trade uncertainty around their supposed star. And given the front office’s hesitance at this year’s deadline, it’s hard to be confident a trade would happen if it doesn’t occur this summer.

LaVine’s market is likely better now than it was in February. But will it be good enough to get Karnišovas an offer he’s willing to accept?

3. What’s the right price for DeMar DeRozan?

The argument over DeRozan has nothing to do with his impact. He has been the team’s leading scorer for two of his three seasons in Chicago and a centerpiece of the locker room. It’s clear why the organization continues to adore him.

The issue is how to juggle that adoration with the practicality of balancing the budget and DeRozan’s age. The Bulls need more room to breathe. And while they highly value DeRozan, who turns 35 in August, signing him at the start of an apparent rebuild makes sense only at the right price.

DeMar DeRozan is tired of questions about his age. ‘You just make people eat their words,’ the 33-year-old Chicago Bulls forward says.

The Bulls already landed on an initial price, according to an NBC Sports Chicago report: $40 million a year for the next two seasons. This number is confusing for several reasons, not the least because it could force the Bulls to tiptoe near if not over the luxury-tax cutoff to maintain essentially the same core group that has been unsuccessful.

A potential saving grace for the Bulls is that this decision is somewhat out of their hands. After the play-in loss in Miami, DeRozan cracked open the door to signing elsewhere as he admitted to frustration — and a rare sliver of concern over his age. Even if the front office highballs DeRozan, it’s possible he would choose a potential path to a ring or proximity to his family over the highest bidder.

4. Is Lonzo Ball coming back for real?

Hope remains among the Bulls — and the NBA at large — that Ball is on a path to full recovery that could make him available by training camp or at least the start of the season.

But the facts are less cheerful. Ball is trying to become the first professional American athlete to recover from a knee cartilage replacement and return to top-tier competition. And anything with a “first” slapped in front of it comes with a layer of unpredictability that doesn’t help a team in flux like the Bulls. This summer is the final turning point in his recovery after more than two years without playing in an NBA game.

Lonzo Ball is sprinting for the 1st time in 2 years in the Chicago Bulls guard’s recovery from a serious knee injury

Karnišovas is clearly deeply attached to the version of the Bulls when Ball was the point guard and the team briefly topped the Eastern Conference standings in the 2021-22 season. That streak was fun, something Bulls basketball rarely has achieved in the years since Ball’s injury. But it was just that — a streak, impossible to prove as a sustainable model for success.

Ball’s contract expires after next season, which means the Bulls have to think long term about his future. And this is really two questions in one: Will Ball be able to return and will he actually play like himself?

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