Lauri Markkanen looked like he was heading for a max contract only a few years ago. Now, the Chicago Bulls forward and former No. 7 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft remains one of the few unsigned veterans in the league more than a week into free agency.
Markkanen has been considered a tantalizing talent because of his three-point shooting ability as a 7-footer. While that sounds like a useful NBA player in theory, Markkanen’s game never fully materialized during his first four years in Chicago. As the Bulls have replaced the front office that drafted him while making bold moves to reshape the roster this summer, Markkanen is suddenly in a difficult spot: he’s one of the few premier free agents remaining on a market with hardly any available salary cap space left around the league.
Markkanen has said publicly that he’s ready to leave Chicago. He doesn’t appear to be in the Bulls’ long-term plans, but the team also has all the leverage because he’s a restricted free agent. With the Bulls reportedly demanding a first round pick in any sign-and-trade deal, Markkanen is suddenly languishing on the open market with no immediate end in sight.
How Lauri Markkanen fell out of favor in Chicago
The Bulls acquired the rights to Markkanen when its former front office, led by John Paxson and Gar Forman, traded star guard Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves with two seasons remaining on his contract during the 2017 draft. Butler’s former coach in Chicago, Tom Thibodeau, completed a trade that sent out the No. 7 pick, Zach LaVine, and Kris Dunn for Butler and the No. 16 pick.
Markkanen’s first season with the Bulls was promising. He averaged 15.2 points per game on 36.2 percent shooting from three-point range. The Bulls were terrible, finishing the season 27-55 as LaVine spent the first half of the year recovering from knee surgery, but Markkanen legitimately looked like a cornerstone piece.
The problem was that over the next three years, Markkanen didn’t really get much better. Neither did the Bulls.
Markkanen rarely showed the ability to create his own offensive looks, a problem that became even more exacerbated on a Bulls team without a reliable point guard. The percentage of Markkanen’s baskets that came off assists climbed from 68 percent to 73 percent to 85 percent. On a team that lacked a gifted facilitator to get him easy shots, Markkanen often felt like a one-dimensional shooter who wasn’t that good at shooting.
The rest of Markannen’s game continued to leave a lot to be desired. He averaged under two assists, under one steal, and under one block per-36 minutes. For his first four years in Chicago, he had 301 turnovers to 273 assists.
Whatever scoring gravity Markkanen possessed wasn’t being used to make his teammates any better. Defensively, he didn’t offer enough rim protection to play center, and he wasn’t quick enough to stick with new-age fours on the perimeter. His rebounding numbers were decent, but largely uninspiring.
During Markkanen’s first four seasons in Chicago, the Bulls posted the worst record in the NBA.
The Bulls would revamp the front office heading into the final year of Markkanen’s rookie year. The new front office, led by Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley, reportedly offered Markkanen an extension believed to be around $15 million annually before the start of the season. The two sides were believed to be about $4 million apart per season.
Markkanen would go on to post some of the best numbers of his career in his fourth season — finally hitting more than 40 percent of his threes for the first time — but it was clear Bulls management wasn’t going to wait around on a new deal before reshaping the roster.
How the free agent market dried up on Markkanen
The Bulls embarked on a busy offseason the minute free agency opened despite being over the salary cap. Chicago worked out a sign-and-trade with the Pelicans for Lonzo Ball (and gave him a four-year, $85 million deal), signed Alex Caruso to the mid-level exception, and completed another sign-and-trade with the Spurs for DeMar DeRozan upon agreeing to a three-year, $85 million deal.
There was a report that San Antonio was interested in taking back Markkanen in the DeRozan sign-and-trade, but according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the Spurs weren’t willing to give Markkanen the contract he was looking for. The Bulls sent out Thad Young and a protected 2025 first round pick instead.
This tracked with a report from Kristian Winfield that Markkanen was looking for more money than teams were willing to give out.
Lauri Markkanen and Kelly Oubre Jr asked for too much money in free agency without the resume to back it up, a league source just told me. The market has cooled significantly on both with most teams out of money.— Kristian Winfield (@Krisplashed) August 4, 2021
Mavs ($15M) & Hornets ($14.5M) among teams w cap space.
The Hornets would go on to sign Kelly Oubre with their remaining cap space instead of Markkanen. At this point, if Markkanen wants to get to a new team, it’s going to take cooperation from multiple teams to get it done.
What does Markkanen’s free agent market look like now?
Markkanen gave an interview with a Finnish journalist last week and said he was ready to leave Chicago.
“We have offers from several different teams. I want a fresh start to my NBA career somewhere else. Hopefully things will be sorted out quickly with the Bulls.”
Despite Markkanen’s desires, there are a number of reasons why that’s going to be complicated. For one, there’s a lack of cap space around the league. He also doesn’t yet appear to have any serious suitors. The Bulls still control his rights as a restricted free agent, too, with the ability to match any offer. According to insider Jake Fischer of Bleacher Report, the Bulls want to acquire a first round pick in any sign-and-trade deal with Markkanen to another deal, and Chicago is urging potential suitors to find a third team in the deal so they won’t have to take any salary back.
In a perfect world, the Bulls would work out a three-team trade that sent Markkanen to a new team while getting back a first rounder to replenish the three first round picks the team lost in acquiring Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan. Markkanen would get the fresh start and new contract he’s looking for. The Pelicans, Mavericks, Timberwolves, and Hornets could all be possible destinations in a sign-and-trade.
Here’s the latest on Dallas’ interest from insider Marc Stein:
Sign-and-trade via TPE is Dallas' most feasible path to a deal since Chicago would not have to take back any salary. But Markkanen is seeking a richer deal than the Mavs can offer that way and can make $9M just by playing next season out as a Bull and becoming an unrestricted FA. https://t.co/zjHTfpSEW7— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) August 10, 2021
There’s also a possibility Markkanen returns to Chicago on the one-year qualifying offer. This would give Markkanen the ability to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, while the Bulls could keep him as a bench piece for a team that is trying to win this season. While Markannen’s shaky defense makes him a poor fit in lineups as a power forward next to Vucevic or as a center next to DeRozan, the Bulls probably wouldn’t mind having another front court shooter in the rotation.
The Markkanen situation will get resolved eventually, but it could continue to drag out as the league now shifts its attention to the trade market. Still only 24 years old, Markkanen certainly still has a chance to carve out a long and lucrative NBA career, particularly if he gets to a team with a high-level playmaker.
A fresh start is the best thing for both sides. We’ll see what it takes to get there.