CHICAGO – When it comes to their offseason after their first playoff appearance in five seasons, priority No. 1 likely begins with No. 8.

Two-time All-Star Zach LaVine is entering unrestricted free agency after completing his eighth NBA season and his fifth with the Bulls. He’s eligible for a maximum contract that could pay him five years and $212 million dollars, which is a major step up from the four-year, $78 million deal he played on most recently.

Naturally, there is an expectation that the Bulls are the leading candidate to bring LaVine back as he remains a key part of the Bulls’ core. But in his exit news conference for the 2021-2022 season, the guard made it clear that he’ll be exploring what’s out there with agent Rich Paul with Klutch Sports.

“I plan to enjoy free agency,” said LaVine when asked if he would take meetings with other teams on Friday. “You’re going to have to experience ‘A-through-Z’ without making any fast decisions. I think that’s something that me and Rich get to go through and experience.”

This figured to cause a little angst among Bulls fans who are generally hoping that the guard decides to remain in Chicago for the foreseeable future. Acquired in the Jimmy Butler trade on NBA Draft Night 2017, the guard has developed into a top-tier guard, averaging over 20 points the last four seasons while getting an All-Star nod in the last two.

LaVine’s play was one of the reasons the Bulls were able to end a five-year playoff drought this past season as he fit in well with a number of new additions to the roster. The guard played through knee trouble for a healthy amount of the second half of the season, but still took the floor for 67 games, averaging 24.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game.

Bulls executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas stressed that continuity is the key for the offseason during his news conference Friday with LaVine’s return being a big part of that. While expressing his desire to explore free agency, the guard was quick to point out his respect for the organization and fans.

“I understand the relationship that I have with Arturas and everybody here. I’ve been here for the last five years. I’ve really enjoyed my time,” said LaVine of Chicago. “I hope everybody understands how much I care about the Bulls and what I’ve done for the city and things like that.

“I’m going into everything open-minded but understanding that my time here has been great and we’ll see what the future holds.”

Right now, that could be a few different things.