While staying professional, Lauri Markkanen put his upcoming restricted free agency as bluntly as possible in a phone conversation with NBC Sports Chicago in May.
"My thing is I think I’ve always been a team-first guy. And I think now it’s time to look at the business side of the game,” Markkanen said then. “I feel like I’m only 23 years old and I have a lot of basketball ahead of me. It’s a good opportunity to look what’s out there for me. I can be a focal point. I think I have a lot more to offer.”
In an expected move, the Chicago Bulls officially extended a qualifying offer to Markkanen on Friday, beating this weekend's deadline in advance of the opening of free agency on Monday. The qualifying offer of just over $9 million makes Markkanen a restricted free agent, which gives the Bulls the right to match any offer sheet he may sign. It also allows the Bulls to try to execute a sign-and-trade scenario if Markkanen signs an offer sheet that the Bulls don't want to match and all parties agree on the transaction.
The offer also can be rescinded during free agency, which would then make Markkanen an unrestricted free agent. A final, longshot scenario is Markkanen not receiving an offer of his liking in restricted free agency and playing next season on the qualifying offer in advance of unrestricted free agency in 2022.
Markkanen, 24, shot a career-high 48 percent in 2020-21, including a career-high 40.2 percent from 3-point range. But he endured a trying season in which he moved from focal point to reserve, losing his starting job to Daniel Theis after the March trade deadline. He finished with averages of 13.6 points and 5.3 rebounds in 25.8 minutes, starting 26 of his 51 games.
At that same deadline, the Bulls engaged in trade talks with the Pelicans for a package centered on Markkanen and Lonzo Ball. Like Markkanen, Ball is set to enter restricted free agent and the Bulls are widely expected to be suitors.
Markkanen turned down a multi-year extension from the Bulls before the season when the two sides didn't come close on an annual salary. Sources at the time painted the gap as roughly $4 million annually on the first-year salary. He then got off to a hot start before entering the league's health and safety protocols for contact tracing and later missed 13 games for a sprained right shoulder on a freak play.
Executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas called Markkanen “an essential part of our team” who he hopes “is a part of what we’re building here” at his end-of-season news conference in May. Coach Billy Donovan also praised Markkanen's role acceptance late in the season.
But the Bulls' brass words didn't always match their actions as Markkanen's role lessened significantly throughout the season. If Markkanen draws any significant or lucrative interest in restricted free agency, the Bulls will face a tough choice as to whether match the deal for someone who finished last season as a reserve or let a one-time cornerstone of the rebuild walk for nothing.
"We didn’t talk about the business side that much,” Markkanen said in May about his exit meeting. “Wherever it is going to be, I’m committed to the team. You know that about me. I’m excited to see what’s out there for me.
“I don’t have any regrets turning (the extension) down. I think I did the right decision. I have a lot of basketball ahead of me. I can do a lot of different stuff on the court. I’m confident in my abilities.”