Lauri Markkanen is in Finland. A quick search will tell you his hometown of Vantaa enjoyed a high of 67 degrees on Monday, because it’s summer and Finland isn’t Hoth, but if you could please imagine him looking out forlornly over an ice-pocked gulf, puffy-coated, as balled up as his seven-foot frame can get, harsh cold wind stinging his ears, that would be more in line with the emotional content of this article. Markkanen seems wounded and upset and most of all lost. At a time when almost everyone else in the NBA has sorted their employment situation, he doesn’t know where he’s going to play next year. He’s not unwanted, exactly, but way less desired than he’d like to be. He thought he might get out in restricted free agency and find a new home. The Bulls probably weren’t going to match a hefty offer, or they would sign-and-trade him away to Dallas or Boston or New Orleans. Somewhere he could take on a bigger role, pull down eight figures. That hefty offer hasn’t arrived, it isn’t going to this offseason. So he’s back in Finland, waiting for his agent to text him. Whatever news arrives probably won’t be all that exciting.
At the moment, he’s set to go back to Chicago, where they’re less than happy to have him. When they drafted Markkanen seventh overall in 2017, he was supposed to buoy a new era. The Bulls had finished .500 on the dot the previous season, didn’t want to pay an increasingly fed up Jimmy Butler, and decided to pivot into the abyss, trading Jimmy to Minnesota in exchange for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the pick they used to select Markkanen. The deal sort of worked out because LaVine has turned into an excellent scorer and serviceable playmaker, but it’s been a long road developmental road for him and throughout that process the Bulls have vacillated between mediocrity and outright terrible performances. They’ve fired two coaches, one of whom had no business being put in charge of an NBA team, turned over the front office, and haven’t come close to making the playoffs. They are just now, maybe, getting it together and looking forward to the future.
It’s a future that Markkanen almost definitely won’t be part of, because he hasn’t delivered on the promise he showed over his first two seasons. He’s an intriguing player in the abstract: a stretch four/five who, coming out of Arizona, was touted as much more than a tall floor-spacer. He was supposed to be smart and mobile, gifted off the dribble and on face-ups, but he’s never shown much of that in the pros. In reality, he’s a pretty good shooter and that’s about it. A decent rebounder, an ineffectual defender. He’s got no midrange game. His playmaking is almost nonexistent. He occasionally makes an effort to finish strong at the rim but isn’t very, well, strong. With Markkanen, you tend to see what he can’t do rather than what he can. He’s not a bad guy to have on your bench, but the Bulls were hoping for a lot more from him, and there’s been little growth to his game from age 20 to 24. He gets hot every once in a while, cans a bunch of threes and posts 30 points, and then descends toward his underwhelming baseline: 5-for-12, 6-for-14, 4-for-11, six or seven boards. He also gets hurt a lot.
Let’s not try to peg an exact figure to whatever Markkanen is or could become, it’s annoying, but apparently no team wanted to break the bank to acquire him by putting in an offer the Bulls wouldn’t match. Now nearly everyone’s cap space is tied up and it’s going to take a sign-and-trade to get Markkanen out of Chicago. It’s not that there’s zero interest league-wide in making this happen, but there’s buzz that the Bulls are holding out for a first round pick in any deal that ships Markkanen out and that’s probably a non-starter for a lot of franchises. They’d take the player, but they don’t particularly want to pay all that much for him.
Markkanen’s stuck. The only option on the table right now is to accept the Bulls’ qualifying offer and hope he has a healthy and productive 21-22, featuring for a team that hardly values him, that plays Nik Vučević some 32 minutes per night, and knows he’ll be out the door next summer. It’s difficult to describe what success would even look like in that scenario. No wonder he and his agent want out yesterday.
Of course they claim there’s interest, several three-year, 40 or 50-something million dollar deals dangling in the ether. It’s possible that they’re real but it doesn’t matter if, say, the Mavericks are interested in paying Markkanen; it matters if they like him enough to call up the Bulls and match their asking price. That seems possible, but unlikely. Markkanen isn’t a player anyone seems to want to go above and beyond for. Nobody’s demanding him.
So he waits in Finland. There are worse fates than visiting friends and family and wondering if you’re going to have to sign a nine-million dollar contract, put off those moving plans for one more year. But professional satisfaction is what Markkanen yearns for, more than anything else. He wants a fresh start, bosses who are excited about what he can contribute. It’s still only mid-August; that opportunity might appear sometime soon. Until then it’s unhappy limbo for Lauri Markannen, dyspeptic hope and a nervous jolt whenever his phone buzzes.