In a recent interview on Finnish podcast Urheilucast, Lauri Markkanen reportedly professed his love for the city of Chicago (because … duh, it’s awesome), adding that he’d like to sign an extension with the Bulls and stick around beyond the length of his current deal, which expires after just one more year of team control (more on that in a second).
Unfortunately, given the issues with translating a foreign language plus the lack of a more familiar source on the matter, we can’t personally speak to the accuracy of the translation. We can, however, discuss an extension for Markkanen, who’s age, remaining upside, and proximity to free agency makes this a very timely matter.
So let’s start with the basics. At the end of this season (whenever that may be), Lauri Markkanen will become eligible to sign an extension on his rookie contract. At the same time, he’s already due roughly $6.7 million in the final year of his rookie deal (2020-2021), with an estimated $9M qualifying offer in place for 2021-22. Which basically means he can either sign an extension with the Bulls this offseason or hit the market as a restricted free agent (alongside an absolutely loaded class of players) in 2021.
If Markkanen’s interest in an extension is to be believed, the Bulls would have plenty of reasons to make something work. How far they are or should be willing to go, however … well, that’s the question. And to attempt an answer, let’s start at the beginning.
On June 22nd, 2017, the Chicago Bulls invested a lot in Lauri Markkanen.
With Jimmy Butler off to Minnesota, the organization officially declared another new beginning. And even though the Bulls also received Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn, all eyes were on their shiny, new No. 7-overall draft pick. Markkanen was a Finnish baller with one year of college experience (Arizona) who played like a guard with the size of a center. While raw, he was an intriguing prospect, whose hype only grew as he posterized Enes Kanter and become the fastest player in NBA history to reach 100 3-pointers.
To make a long story short, Markkanen showed plenty of promise … until he didn’t. He was bitten by an injury bug, and his lack of confidence plummeted (or so it appeared) soon thereafter. At only 22-years-old and in his third season in the NBA, many of us expected an All-Star leap from The Finnisher; instead, he delivered the worst performance of his career. Head coach Jim Boylen turned Markkanen into a spot-up shooting seven-footer, who rarely – if ever – got the ball on the move. And as CBS Sports Jasmyn Wimbish pointed out, his touches went from roughly 70 per game over his first two seasons to 45 a night during the 2019-20 campaign. Ultimately, Markkanen averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game over his 50 games played this season.
And that makes things a little complicated. He’s just not an easy contract to project or even comp.
Prior to this season, I could’ve imagined seeing the Bulls offer Markkanen something similar to what the Indiana Pacers gave Domantas Sabonis this past offseason (four-years, $77 million). However, given Markkanen’s drop in performance and the current economic climate, I can’t imagine this front office tries to negotiate anywhere near a $19M average annual value. And with revenues expectedly down amidst the regular season hiatus, team spending is going to be harder than ever to project, to say nothing of the hit to the salary cap, which could further (albeit artificially) limit how much the team is willing to spend on an extension for any player.
All things considered, I think we can agree any extension offer Markkanen receives from the Bulls this offseason will be lower than what we would’ve expected as recently as October 2019.
With that said, K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago has previously reported that VP of Basketball Ops Arturas Karnisovas and GM Marc Eversley both have a “strong relationship” with Markkanen’s agent, so any future talks are bound to begin in good faith. However, given the volatility of Markkanen’s performance, I have to imagine these two sides will start on very different pages. Not to mention, this new front office may be a bit more hesitant to go over the top, seeing as their first big move will be disproportionately scrutinized. You shouldn’t make decisions based on fan reaction – ever – but to say it’s a non-factor would probably be unfair.
In any case, the organization will want to preserve access to Markkanen’s remaining and very real upside, but they simply cannot afford to ignore everything that’s happened since he was drafted.
To go further, the Bulls are paying Zach LaVine $19.5 million in AAV, which some would consider a steal given his performance, but Markkanen still hasn’t proven he can offer anywhere near the same consistent level of production. With all this in mind, if I were forced to guess, I’d think a discussion closer to the $12-$14M AAV range is more tenable, based on a mix of what we’ve seen from him so far and the realities of the market.
And to that latter point, I don’t just mean the implications of COVID-19. Remember, the 2021 free-agent market is stacked, and while teams have already begun positioning themselves to have as much cap space as possible when that market opens up, (1) the salary cap is going to look fundamentally different than we anticipated and (2) Markkanen will have plenty of competition as a free agent. I wouldn’t be surprised if Markkanen wants to gamble on a bounce-back next season to set himself up for a free agent score the following summer, but if he did, it would be exactly that: a gamble. He wouldn’t be the first player to do so (and win), but the stability and guarantees of an extension right now might be at an all-time premium.
In the end, a Markkanen extension might be one of the most pivotal moves for the Bulls this offseason. What the organization decides to do will not only provide insight into what this front office thinks of him and his potential but what they think of the current roster, writ large. Fortunately – or, at a minimum – it does sound like he’d like to stick around, and speaking as a fan, I’d certainly like to see what he’s got left.
Michael Cerami contributed to this post.