In the end, despite a few weeks of rumblings and questions, forward Lauri Markkanen stayed put with the Chicago Bulls at the trade deadline. There was talk of a swap for point guard Lonzo Ball, but the Pelicans were asking for too much, pushing for Chicago to include a first-round draft pick in a Markkanen-Ball deal. The Bulls instead sent picks to Orlando as part of a package to acquire Nicola Vucevic.
Markkanen told reporters that he never felt a trade was something he had to worry about, and had not spoken to team vice president Arturas Karnisovas about the rumors around his name.
“I felt I’m in a good place that I can focus on the task at hand, I can play games and it’s not gonna bother me,’’ Markkanen said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “I can’t control [trades] — I knew that was one possibility when I didn’t sign my extension before the season, so I knew that was one thing that can happen. So it doesn’t affect me at all.”
Besides, this won’t be the only opportunity the Bulls have left to trade Markkanen. Many executives around the league believe he will be a sign-and-trade player in the summer, at least netting the Bulls a significant trade exception that they can use next year.
Vucevic, Markkanen Could Have Defensive Issues
Of course, getting past the trade deadline without a Markkanen deal was the easy part for both team and player. Figuring out what comes next is the had part.
The Bulls will give Markkanen a chance to show what he can do alongside Vucevic, a pairing that should be offensively proficient but defensively worrisome. Markkanen has averaged 17.4 points on 47.9% shooting this season, while Vucevic is averaging 21.0 points on 56.3% shooting. That’s exceptional scoring and efficiency from the frontcourt.
But both Markkanen and Vucevic lack quickness and defensive versatility. In their debut together on Saturday, the Bulls were hammered by the Spurs, giving up 54.1% shooting and 28 free-throw attempts. Vucevic was a minus-24 on the game and Markkanen was minus-21.
One game matters little, of course. What will matter is whether the two can form a rapport quickly, and whether coach Billy Donovan can concoct a defense that masks the deficiencies of the two players.
“It’s always difficult when you make major changes like this team did,” Vucevic said. “I think early on, we’re just trying to figure each other out. I think we were trying not to step on each others’ toes, so we were a little passive. … It’s gonna be a process. It’s not gonna happen overnight.”
Markkanen Hits Restricted Free Agency This Summer
The bigger question, though, is not so much what happens with Markkanen over the remaining 28 games on the Bulls’ schedule, but what happens thereafter. One reason that the Bulls were taking offers on Markkanen at the trade deadline is that he is a restricted free agent this offseason and, despite some flashes of offensive brilliance, Chicago is still uncertain of what it has, exactly, with its starting power forward.
Markkanen has averaged 16.3 points in four seasons since the Bulls brought him in as one of the key components of the trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota in 2017. But he has been unable to stay healthy, missing 79 games in four seasons and at least 14 games in each year he has been in the NBA.
Per a source: The Chicago Bulls are still looking at Lauri Markkanen trades. Chicago doesn’t see him and Nikola Vucevic as a long-term fit next to each other in the frontcourt.
— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) March 25, 2021
He deserves a big payday based on his numbers. But his unreliability, as well as his problems on defense, make the Bulls wary of handing out a sizable contract for him.
That is where the sign-and-trade could come in. A team with significant cap space could make a pitch for Markkanen, assuming the Bulls are willing to let him go (they can match any offer for him). The Bulls could simply swap him and collect some future second-round pick plus a trade exception.
That could be the most likely Markkanen scenario. He did survive the trade deadline. But he might still be traded.