Agent Rich Paul pushes back against Bulls smear campaign against Zach LaVine – NBC Sports Chicago

Presented by Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich

The entire NBA knows that the Chicago Bulls are shopping two-time All-Star guard Zach LaVine. It’s been a storyline for months, if not years.

And the longer it goes on, the more likely it is to get messed up. There can be finger pointing. There can be accusations. There can be character-focused leaks.

It’s this dynamic that Rich Paul, LaVine’s agent and CEO of Klutch Sports Group, was keen to address on Thursday.

“I want to make this clear and clear: The whole idea that Zach has been anything less than professional in this situation is false. This guy has played through injuries. He has represented the franchise with class. A lot has happened during his time with the Bulls and he has taken the high road every time,” Paul said by phone. “Does every player get frustrated? Yes. But Zach is the ultimate professional and deserves better.

“The Bulls have business to do. And we’re going to let them take care of their business.”

That business has been in full view since July 2023, when the Bulls held preliminary trade talks for LaVine with the Portland Trail Blazers when they still had Damian Lillard and the Philadelphia 76ers when they still had James Harden. Other trade rumors involving LaVine surfaced around that time as well.

Just two years ago, LaVine’s relationship with the Bulls blossomed. In July 2022, he signed a five-year, $215 million contract, fresh off his second All-Star nomination and first playoff appearance — and the Bulls’ first since 2017.

The future seemed limitless and, in LaVine’s mind, free from the distractions of trade rumors.

Instead, the Bulls endured two straight seasons without a playoff appearance. And after LaVine and the Bulls suffered a poor start to the 2023-24 season, The Athletic reported that “there is more openness” from both sides about exploring a trade.

While this was the first time LaVine opened the door to a change of scenery, he never asked for a trade. He was focused on overcoming his and the Bulls’ slow start to the season and trying to figure out and treat the pain in his right foot that ultimately required season-ending surgery.

“We went to them and said, ‘We understand the business of basketball. If we’re going to keep playing this way and you’re going to look for changes, let’s work together,'” LaVine told NBC Sports Chicago midway through last season. “I never said I wanted to get traded.”

LaVine returned from his first extended absence due to his foot injury to help the Bulls go 5-2 in January. But the pain in his foot persisted. LaVine and his team sought outside medical opinions, which is common in the NBA.

When LaVine opted for season-ending surgery, the Bulls’ official team statement read: “After obtaining additional medical advice, and in consultation with the Chicago Bulls training and medical staffs, guard Zach LaVine and Klutch Sports Group have elected to perform surgery on LaVine’s right foot as the next step in his recovery process.”

This wording, coupled with rumors that the Detroit Pistons were interested in trading LaVine, created a false narrative that LaVine opted for surgery rather than join the rebuilding Pistons. Multiple sources around the league indicated at the time that the Pistons’ decision-makers were split on trading LaVine and that the Bulls were not close to a deal.

In March, LaVine spoke to a small group of reporters in Los Angeles and addressed the story that he had opted for surgery over a trade to the Pistons.

“You never want to have surgery. But I came to the conclusion, especially with what the doctor told me, that the pain and this thing is not going to heal on its own,” LaVine said at the time. “It’s a bone that was floating around. It’s known as a non-union Jones fracture, which I’ve been dealing with for a while. And when the doctor — I’m glad I was able to find him — told me to get this done as soon as possible, it was good to know.”

This is the second time LaVine has played with an injury. In 2021-22, he played with a knee injury that required arthroscopy in a contract year as the franchise sought its first playoff berth since 2017. He consistently said then that he was confident he could still help the team if he played at 80 percent.

LaVine has been on the receiving end of plenty during his seven seasons with the Bulls, including serving professionally as the face of the franchise during a challenging rebuild from 2017-21. He’s also had plenty of high points, both personally and with teammates like Coby White, whom he named the NBA’s Most Improved Player this past season.

But this relationship has felt like it was headed for a divorce for a while now, and the longer he stays with the Bulls, the more the potential for chaos increases.

“I think we have a great relationship with Zach, a great relationship with his representation in Rich Paul,” executive vice president of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas said after the Bulls’ inactive trade deadline in February. “I think we always work together and I think he always thinks about the team. He tries to win. And he tries to win when he’s healthy.”

LaVine is now healthy. He has surpassed his estimated four-to-six-month return from foot surgery by weeks and is continuing his usual off-season routine. Where he will ply his trade next season remains to be seen.

By trading Josh Giddey to play alongside White, the Bulls appear poised to begin building a backcourt for the future. The mutual understanding between the Bulls management and LaVine’s perception that a change of scenery is best for all parties seems like the sensible path.

The Bulls have presented more than 15 offers to teams in recent weeks, with league sources indicating that the Kings and Warriors have shown the most interest, though the latter has since made moves that likely point in a different direction.

Interested teams will likely want an extra asset that will take on LaVine’s three years and $138 million. The longer it takes to resolve this situation, the less value the Bulls can get in return.

With DeMar DeRozan’s situation also unresolved, the Bulls have plenty to worry about. In an offseason that Karnišovas says is dedicated to change, LaVine’s future is paramount.

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