Lauri Markkanen’s Free Agency Continues on Without a Deal

  • 24-year-old Finnish big man Lauri Markkanen is still a free agent almost 4 weeks into free agency.
  • Markkanen was ranked one of the NBA’s best young players in 2019, but struggled the last 2 years.
  • With cap space dried up and the Bulls in control of his future, Markkanen’s options look limited.

Nearly four weeks into NBA free agency, Lauri Markkanen remains on the open market, with transactions slowing to a crawl.

The 24-year-old Finnish big man is a restricted free agent with the Chicago Bulls and is yet to find a deal.

It’s a surprising turn for the 7-footer, who was considered one of the best prospects in the NBA just two years ago. In 2019, ESPN ranked Markkanen 13th in the league among players younger than 25. The previous year, he was 19th.

As a rookie, Markkanen became the quickest player in league history to hit 100 three-pointers. In addition to a sweet stroke that allowed him to spread the floor, Markkanen also caught opponents by surprise with his quick feet, athleticism, and aggression on the offensive end.

However, over the past two years, Markkanen hasn’t built on his promising first two seasons. Nagging injuries have affected his game, and his scoring production and rebounding declined in back-to-back seasons. This led Markkanen to lose his spot in the Bulls’ starting lineup last season and perhaps lose a bit of confidence along the way.

These struggles are part of what made former Memphis Grizzlies executive and The Athletic analyst John Hollinger dub Markkanen one of the offseason’s “mystery men” ahead of free agency. Still just 24, coming off a season in which he shot 40% from three, Markkanen should have plenty of value, but just how confident were teams that Markkanen could be the 2017-2019 version of himself rather than the 2019-2021 version?

It appears there are still Markkanen believers out there. According to NBC Sports’ K.C. Johnson, up to four teams have inquired about sign-and-trades for Markkanen. The Bulls’ asking price in return is steep, according to Johnson.

Markkanen, for his part, appears to want out. Markkanen told Finnish news outlet YLE earlier in August that he wants a “new start” for his career by going to another team.

Being a restricted free agent only adds to the complexity of Markkanen’s offseason. The Bulls can match any offer sheet Markkanen receives. If Markkanen signs with another team, the Bulls have 48 hours to match, which leaves that team at a disadvantage, as their cap space is temporarily tied up awaiting a Bulls answer. Offering Markkanen a deal only to have the Bulls match 48 hours later could potentially cost a team shots at other free agents.

But now, so long after the initial deluge of signings when free agency opened on August 2, teams don’t have cap space available to sign Markkanen outright. (The Oklahoma City Thunder do have cap space but have not been reported as a suitor so far). That makes a sign-and-trade necessary, but with rights on Markkanen, the Bulls are under no obligation to give him away for cheap.

There could be yet another layer to it. The NBA is investigating the Bulls for tampering because they quickly agreed to a sign-and-trade with the New Orleans Pelicans for Lonzo Ball. According to Johnson, with the Bulls currently being investigated, it’s “unlikely” that other teams could facilitate a sign-and-trade for Markkanen.

Markkanen could return to the Bulls on the one-year, $9 million qualifying offer, but it doesn’t sound as if that is an appealing option to him. And for the revamped Bulls, it’s worth debating if it would be good to bring back a player who doesn’t want to be there.

However, with preseason just six weeks away, Markkanen is running out of time and options to find a new home.

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