In the days just before Christmas last year, the Bulls had a decision to make: bend to meet the price tag that big man Lauri Markkanen was asking for or stay strong with the team’s insistence on a more modest deal, aiming to maintain future flexibility even as they would allow Markkanen to hit restricted NBA free agency.
The team stood strong. Now, even after a poor outing from Markkanen against the Knicks on Wednesday, there is a question about whether the Bulls will regret that decision. Because before he put up that nine-point, four-rebound clunker against New York, Markkanen had been scorching offensively, posting back-to-back 30-point games.
In nine games since returning from a seven-game health and safety protocol absence, Markkanen averaged 20.7 points and 5.9 rebounds, shooting 51.5% from the field and 37.0% from the 3-point line. He has been looking much more like his old self offensively this season after a lost year in 2019-20, and with the Bulls having chosen not to pay him in the offseason, his stock now is on the rise heading into next summer.
Markkanen ‘Wanted to Get a Deal Done’
After the sides failed to come to an agreement, Markkanen voiced his support for the team and commitment to remaining in Chicago.
“I think we’re moving in the right direction with the team right now, and that’s my main focus,” Markkanen said at the time. “Obviously disappointing. I wanted to get a deal done. But that happened and we’re moving on. I’m 100% committed to this team and we keep moving forward and we’ll see what happens.”
What’s happened is that Markkanen has reminded the Bulls—and the rest of the league—that he is still an extraordinarily skilled offensive 7-footer, who is just 23 years old.
Ahead of the December deadline to sign a contract extension, NBC Sport’ K.C. Johnson reported that Markkanen and the Bulls were $4 million apart on a starting salary for a new deal. Around the league, it is believed that the Bulls were offering something in the range of what the Lakers paid Kyle Kuzma—a three-year, $39 million extension for $13 million per year—and what the Wizards gave Davis Bertans, a deal that started closer to $14 million.
That would mean that Markkanen was seeking a deal starting in the $17-18 million range—a full deal that would run more than $80 million over four years.
Restricted Free Agents Could See an Offseason Boom
When the Bulls declined to meet numbers like that, they surely felt that they would be able to sign Markkanen to a similar deal this offseason if he played well. That could still be true. But the problem is that the market has shifted and Markkanen might prove to be a bigger commodity than expected when he hits free agency this summer.
He will be a restricted free agent, meaning the Bulls have the right to match any offer for him. But those offers might be blossoming.
Several teams, like the Knicks, Cavaliers and Raptors, will have ample cap space to make a run at free-agents this summer. Many teams carved out and protected their salary space with the idea that players like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brad Beal, Paul George and Gordon Hayward would be available.
But Antetokounmpo, George and Beal signed extensions, while Hayward opted out last season and got a new contract in Charlotte. What was expected to be a booming free-agent market is now fairly thin.
That is where a restricted free agent like Markkanen (or John Collins in Atlanta, or Talen Horton-Tucker in Los Angeles) can benefit. Teams could be more willing to make a swing-for-the-fences offer for a restricted player, in hopes that the team—the Bulls in this case—would be scared off of matching the offer.
If Markkanen’s scoring keeps improving as it has, re-signing him could be an expensive proposition.
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