The Lauri Markkanen saga — and era — is over.
Friday morning, the Bulls, Cavaliers and Trail Blazers agreed to a deal that will send Markkanen to Cleveland on a four-year, $67 million contract; Derrick Jones Jr. and draft capital to Chicago; and Larry Nance Jr. to Portland.
That ends a four-year Bulls tenure for Markkanen, the seventh pick in the 2017 draft and centerpiece of the Jimmy Butler trade. Once thought to be a cornerstone of the Bulls’ rebuild, Markkanen fell out of favor with the new managerial regime, fading to a reserve role and averaging career-lows in points, rebounds and minutes in 2020-21.
Now, he hopes for a fresh start with the Cavaliers. And the Bulls move forward with one more item checked off the agenda from a busy offseason.
But before all that… Let’s assess the deal:
Bulls receive: Derrick Jones Jr., 2022 first-round pick (via Portland, lottery protected*), 2023 second-round pick (from Cleveland, via Denver)
*According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, this pick is lottery-protected (1-14) through 2028. If not conveyed by then, it becomes a second-round pick.
Cavaliers receive: Lauri Markkanen
Trail Blazers receive: Larry Nance Jr.
At a glance, this is a fine bit of business for the Bulls.
It’s long been apparent that a breakup was in both Markkanen and the team’s best interest. Instead of losing the still-promising 24-year-old for nothing — which looked a very plausible outcome at the outset of the offseason — the Bulls accomplished a couple different things through this transaction.
For one, they recoup a not-insignificant amount of draft capital in a time of need. Between the Nikola Vučević deal (which cost them top-four protected first-rounders in 2021 and 2023) and the DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade (which saw them part with a 2025 first-rounder), the Bulls before Friday were out three first-round picks (two future) and unable to trade any of the ones they do own because of the Stepien Rule, which forbids trading future firsts in back-to-back years. They are also awaiting the results of a tampering investigation into their acquisition of Lonzo Ball, which could cost them additional draft capital if found guilty.
A lottery-protected first from Portland is no crown jewel. But unless a Damian Lillard trade materializes by this season’s trade deadline, that selection is likely to convey this year, giving the Bulls either an extra bite at the apple in the mid-to-late first round in 2022, a bit of ammo to utilize on the trade market next offseason, or insurance against the potential loss of draft capital in the future. The 2023 second-round pick is a nice dollop of gravy, given they also parted with two future seconds in the DeRozan deal.
The Bulls also address an area of roster weakness with the acquisition of Jones Jr., who signed with the Trail Blazers for the full mid-level last offseason but failed to meet expectations. Jones Jr. is by no means a transformational player — there’s a reason it didn’t work out in Portland — but he’s unnaturally long (6-foot-5 with a 7-foot-wingspan) and preternaturally athletic; a springy combo forward that can, at the very least, run the floor hard, slam home lobs and generate deflections in a marginal role. He slots in tidily at backup power forward for the time being, joining Patrick Williams and DeRozan as the only players on the roster with even limited NBA experience at that position.
Remember, too, that the Bulls were linked to Jones Jr. last offseason. If they once saw something in him, they probably believe there is still yet potential to unlock within the 24-year-old. At a position of need, his athleticism and defensive versatility should give him a chance to contribute on the wing or in the frontcourt (both areas in which the Bulls are thin) — and, with just one year remaining on his contract at $9.7 million, he offers little downside, even given his woeful track record as a jump-shooter.
And as a final point: Let’s be real, Markkanen playing this season out in Chicago on the qualifying offer wasn’t going to make anyone happy. This deal provides Markkanen a pretty hefty payday (considering the dearth of cap space on the market) and long-term security in a fresh situation, while the Bulls get themselves a handsome return.
How the Cavaliers expect to juggle a frontcourt rotation of Markkanen, Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley is a question for a later day — and a different beat.
Bulls grade: A
What’s next: As ESPN’s Bobby Marks noted, the Bulls exit this deal $6.4 million under the luxury tax line and $11.8 million under the hard cap, which they must adhere to.
With Jones Jr. on board, the Bulls have 13 guaranteed contracts on the roster and are essentially down to minimums or their bi-annual exception as avenues to outright sign free agents. Before the end of training camp, they must have 14 players at the least and 15 at the most (not including two-ways, for which they have one slot remaining).
Jones Jr. in theory at least partially addresses the team’s lack of depth on the wing and in the frontcourt, but both could still use bolstering.