Selected with the seventh overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Lauri Markkanen has just one more year on his contract before hitting restricted free agency next offseason. But it didn’t have to be that way. Until yesterday’s deadline passed without a deal, Markkanen and the Bulls could’ve worked out a long-term extension that would’ve kept the 23-year-old big man in Chicago well beyond the season that begins tomorrow. And for while, that felt like a pretty good bet.
After a promising rookie season (15.2 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 29.7 minutes per game), Markkanen’s usage ticked up in 2018-2019 (over 32 minutes per game) and his baseline production alongside it (18.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG). But then something happened. Well, a lot happened, really: (1) Jim Boylen came in and tweaked the way the Bulls used Markkanen – clearly for the worse, (2) Markkanen began playing a little more timidly, with less off-ball movement, less aggression, and less success overall, and (3) a brand new front office and coaching staff swept into Chicago, with no prior ties to Markkanen and a strong incentive to preserve as much long-term flexibility as possible.
So after playing in under 30 minutes per game last season with his lowest points scored (14.7), total rebounds (6.3), 3-point percentage (.344), and overall field goal percentage (.425), not to mention that (difficult-to-describe, but fairly evident) lack of aggression and off-ball movement, the Bulls decided to play the waiting game.
They did not find a way to match up on an extension before yesterday’s deadline and will allow Markkanen to prove it on the court this season. This could end up costing the Bulls money — either in restricted free agency, where they’ll have to match any offer sheet if they hope to keep Markkanen, or in an even bigger extension if rediscovers his early-career form. But it was almost certainly a risk worth taking – again, especially for a new front office who may have their own, very different read on The Finnisher and the Bulls long-term outlook.
But even though the decision is now officially in the past, it feels important to note Markkanen’s reaction and response to the way things went. Not only is that useful information for Markkanen’s future, it’s also a great opportunity to discern more about how this front office operates and how they leave players feeling when things don’t exactly work out. Remember, the Bulls need an image makeover as much as a roster makeover.
Lauri Markkanen said he doesn't think his side and Bulls were "very close" on an extension agreement. Said from talking with agent in the run-up to deadline, Bulls' offer "wasn't something I would take."
"They had their reasons and we had our side of the case."
— Rob Schaefer (@rob_schaef) December 22, 2020
Starting with the first-half, Markkanen’s words track closely with behind-the-scenes reporting that was done on Sunday, when the two sides were reportedly “far apart.” I want to be cautious not to extend a tone that wasn’t otherwise present, but you can certainly read the “[the Bulls offer wasn’t something I would take” line with a little bit of disappointment if not implied disrespect. HOWEVER, just as we can justify the Bulls aiming for a team-friendly deal, we can understand why Markkanen wouldn’t accept one.
Markkanen’s value is probably at an all-time low at the moment, which means there’s *almost* nowhere to go but up. Obviously, he could lose his starting gig and/or get hurt this season. But I suspect it’s more likely he bounces back in an offensive system he prefers with a head coach that better knows how to use him. Meanwhile, the rest of the league has been stockpiling financial flexibility for next offseason, which was SUPPOSED to be some historic class before the extensions started pouring in. So even if Markkanen strongly prefers to stay in Chicago, but wants to earn a little more scratch, he can up his value on the court this season, take his talents to the itching-to-spend market next offseason, and bring back a pricey offer sheet to the Bulls with a smile in hand.
Or as he put it: “They had their reasons and we had our side of the case.”
(There’s also the fact that teams could simply have more money to spend next offseason, one year further removed from the start of the pandemic and the deepest economic woes of fan-less basketball).
Markkanen did say that he felt like he did what we could to get a deal done (which is both what you’d expect him to say, but also not exactly what you want to hear), but did reaffirm his commitment to the Bulls and being good in 2020-2021.
Markkanen: “I felt I did everything I could towards that and I thought we would get something done. But it didn’t happen.” https://t.co/V3gUPj9lI6
— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) December 22, 2020
And, hey, he has more of a reason to be good this season than ever before. And as for the Bulls, I suspect they’ll be thrilled to pay the difference in an extension or matched offer next season if its because Markkanen just went OFF this year. This is the business. This is how it goes. Now everyone has to live with the decision and hope it works out for the best.