As Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen's restricted free agency continues to drag, the New Orleans Pelicans have emerged as a potential suitor, according to a report from Marc Stein.
"The Pelicans have expressed interest in Lauri Markkanen and hold a sizable trade exception ($17 million) to take the restricted free agent in on a contract he seeks," Stein wrote in a Sunday afternoon tweet. "The Bulls, though, are said to want a first-round pick to facilitate."
Because the Bulls extended Markkanen a qualifying offer before the opening of free agency, they will have the right to match any offer sheet he signs. But a breakup (ideally via sign-and-trade) has long felt inevitable, and mutually beneficial, given Markkanen's reduced role down the stretch of the 2020-21 season, and the Bulls' recent roster overhaul.
After he and the Bulls failed to agree to an extension last offseason, Markkanen averaged career-lows in minutes (25.8), points (13.6) and rebounds (5.3) across 51 appearances in his fourth NBA season, losing his starting spot to Daniel Theis shortly after the Bulls' reshaped their frontcourt at March's trade deadline.
While Markkanen spoke diplomatically about that demotion in real-time, he also asserted a belief that he's a starting-caliber NBA player, and in a May exit interview with NBC Sports Chicago, said he intended to explore opportunities elsewhere in restricted free agency.
Alas, cap space has dried up since the negotiation period opened on Aug. 2. The Hornets and Timberwolves have both also been reported as potential Markkanen landing spots, though Charlotte's recent signing of Kelly Oubre Jr. to a multi-year contract clouds that possibility.
The Pelicans would represent a full-circle destination. The Bulls and Pelicans engaged in trade talks centered on Markkanen and Lonzo Ball at March's trade deadline, but those deliberations hit a snag because of draft-pick demands from New Orleans. The Bulls, of course, agreed to terms with the Pelicans on a sign-and-trade for Ball at the start of free agency — a transaction which the NBA is currently investigating for tampering.
That investigation, and Markkanen's restricted free agency, are the two biggest items left to resolve on the Bulls' offseason agenda before training camps tip off in September.