Over a week into free agency, Lauri Markkanen is still looking for his moment of clarity.
The soon-to-be fifth-year big has posted a career 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game on 44/37/85 shooting splits. Though, last season, his splits were a personal-best 48/40 from the field and from deep. But he’s had an up-and-down first four seasons. After coming into the league looking like a steal with 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a full-time starter in 2017-18, Markkanen improved to 18.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, and still shot 36 percent from three and 87 percent on free throws. In year three, his numbers dropped as he battled injury, and this past season, half of his appearances came off the bench. He’s played 221 of a possible 301 games (2019-20 was condensed to 65 games for the Chicago Bulls and 2020-21 was 72 for everybody), meaning he’s missed 20 games per season, on average.
He’s still available and is drawing intrigue around the league, though only to a point. The Bulls now have Lonzo Ball and DeMar DeRozan to pair with Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, and Nikola Vučević in their starting five, which makes things complicated. Should the Bulls just plug Markkanen in as the sixth man for now? Or continue to try dealing him elsewhere?
It’s pretty shocking that DeRozan’s hefty $85 million deal didn’t come in exchange for Markkanen via sign-and-trade to the San Antonio Spurs, DeRozan’s last team. Reportedly, Markkanen just asked for too much money, and the Spurs opted for fellow tall white dude Zach Collins on a three-year, $22 million deal, despite the fact that he’s played 11 games in two years. If the Bulls are going to trade Markkanen, the Spurs would have made a ton of sense for where they are in the rebuilding process, but you can’t blame them for thinking otherwise after they couldn’t come to financial terms.
Among those who remain interested are the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans, and Charlotte Hornets. For the T-Wolves, why? For Dallas? Unless you’re making it a Kristaps Porziņģis swap (and why would you? They’re almost the same dude), why? If you’re the Pelicans… I guess? If you’re Charlotte, it’s not really needed, given your mostly successful off-season thus far. None of that should stop Chicago from getting what they can in return. But, for where he may fit best, let’s focus on Boston. Markkanen on the Celtics? I mean, yanno. But also, it makes sense from a basketball standpoint.
Kemba Walker, Tristan Thompson, Semi Ojeleye, and Evan Fournier are all gone, and they added Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Kris Dunn, Enes Kanter, and Bruno Fernando (H/T Celtics Blog). Your starting lineup might currently be Marcus Smart, Richardson, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Robert Williams III, one to five. Markkanen could fit either as the sixth man, a role he adopted last season in Chicago, or starting at the four in place of Richardson, who’d move to the bench while you slide Brown and Tatum to the two and three. It also depends on what would be outgoing for Markkanen, and for Boston, it’s challenging, as MassLive laid out. Still, if you’re Boston, the salaries don’t have to match exactly to what Markkanen would be signed and traded for. The Celtics’ $11 million leftover trade exception from the Gordon Hayward sign and trade, most of which was used for Fournier, expired. However, Boston created a new exception due to their involvement in the three-team deal for Dunn and Fernando; it used $9.7M of TPE (traded player exception) worth from the Walker-Horford deal made during the playoffs. By dealing Thompson, a new TPE worth $9.7 million was created. They also have $5 million from the Daniel Theis trade (with the Bulls) months ago.
In essence, the Celtics could re-route a piece or two, add a future first, and use an exception to move for Markkanen. It works for both sides. Easier said than done since our asses don’t have to handle the negotiations, though.
In the NBA, there’s more signing now and figuring out later than ever before. In some cases, you extended the contract of 30-somethings into their aging years because you want to win now and do care about the back half of the contract, i.e. the Miami Heat and Jimmy Butler. In others, you just extend the contract for “Player X” and will likely turn around to try to trade them a year or so into the field, i.e. the Sacramento Kings and Buddy Hield.
The latter is how the Bulls may go with Markkanen, but it could be worth a shot for the immediate future. Markkanen and Vučević didn’t play a ton of minutes together, but there’s a world where he fits as a sixth man behind Vučević and Williams, who started all 71 games he played in as a rookie. The Bulls could just keep him for now and try to deal him in February or after the season if it doesn’t bode well. Chances are, this isn’t the route they take, and rightfully so, but it’s not an awful alternative if you’re in win-now mode anyway.