Whenever the NBA offseason officially kicks off, the Bulls and Lauri Markkanen will be at something of an impasse.
Markkanen is coming off what he called a “down” third season in a Monday Zoom call with reporters, in which he averaged career-lows in points and rebounds per game, as well as field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage and usage rate. When he begins Year 4, he’ll already be playing for his third NBA head coach in Billy Donovan — a relationship that, for what it’s worth, seems to be off to a rollicking start.
He’ll also find himself rookie-extension eligible when the opening bells of the offseason chime, with his representation across the table from the Bulls’ new front office regime headlined by Artūras Karnišovas and Marc Eversley. Without a long-term agreement, Markkanen could become a restricted or unrestricted free agent in the 2021 offseason, depending on whether or not the Bulls eventually were to extend him a qualifying offer.
And uncertainties abound. Should Markkanen look to lock in long-term with the Bulls now? Should he gamble on himself and hope to recoup some of his value in a refurbished offensive system next season (à la Jimmy Butler)? How wide (if any) will the gap between him and the Bulls be in initial negotiations?
It’s a lot to think about for a 23-year-old, especially as Markkanen looks to reverse his on-court regression from 2019-20. But, speaking from the Advocate Center, where the Bulls are currently hosting a voluntary offseason minicamp for players in the area, he said he hasn’t spent much energy worrying.
“I’m not really worried about it,” Markkanen said when asked if he’s considered how negotiations will play out. “I’ll let my agent work that out with the front office.”
He did add, though, that he wants to stick in Chicago for the future. And that his focus remains on the things that he can control.
“I do want to stay in Chicago for the long term. That’s my main goal, to hang out and try to build up relationships with the guys and get to play with them and get the chemistry going,” Markkanen said. “I just worry about things I can control on the floor, and I’ll let other guys work on the contract stuff.”
The chemistry aspect appears to be going splendidly to this point. Zach LaVine described “positive vibes” around the Bulls’ minicamp in its first week, a point Markkanen echoed to kick off Week 2.
“I touched a golf club for the first time in my life, so that was pretty exciting. It went better than I thought it would go,” Markkanen chided. “I can’t wait to play Artūras again in ping pong. I need to get him back. He got one from me. So I need to get a rematch on that.”
That’s not the only contact Markkanen and Karnišovas — and general manager Marc Eversley — have had since each of the latter two’s hirings. At his end of season press conference, Karnišovas vowed to formulate an offseason plan to get Markkanen back on track. Eversley, in a 1-on-1 with NBC Sports Chicago’s K.C. Johnson shortly after his hiring, committed to getting to the bottom of Markkanen’s regression.
“I’ve obviously spent a lot of time with Marc and AK already, just getting to know them first of all. Obviously I can learn a lot from both of those guys,” Markkanen said. “The biggest thing for me is to just play with energy and rebound the ball. That’s what AK wants me to do, I’m sure. We haven’t talked that much yet. We’ve been just playing pretty much. Of course there are little pointers every now and then. But I’m just excited going into this year. We have a lot of resources around us.”
Markkanen said he stayed in Chicago until mid-June, then went home to Finland for a month before returning in July. He said he’d been in the Advocate Center “working out Monday through Friday” since (while only limited individual workouts were permitted).
Steadying his jump-shot, and working on his ball handling and playmaking are part of what’s on his to-do list as a crucial season looms, Markkanen said. He wants to “prove all the people wrong” whose expectations for him have lowered after Year 3.
And he’s optimistic about that coming to pass.
“I do feel very confident going into this year,” Markkanen said. “I think when you look at our team and the players on paper, we should have a really good team. I think the direction we’re going as an organization, I’m really confident going in. The experience that coach Donovan has to bring to the table, I think we’re going to be good.”
Should it, his wish for a long-term future in Chicago becomes all the more tangible.