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Lauri Markkanen: awkwardly, still a Chicago Bull

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Lauri’s restricted free agency is in limbo

Chicago Bulls v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

It was a furiously fast first week of NBA Free Agency, but after nearly all non-minimum guys are now signed and cap space has dried up around the league, the transactions have slowed down significantly.

That’s bad news for Lauri Markkanen, who is still out there as a restricted free agent.

There hasn’t been much in way of rumor when it comes to Lauri. Last week the man himself spoke to media in Finland and postured that he wants a new team with a bigger role, and is very uninterested in playing out the one-year qualifying offer of ~$9M. While the Bulls do have a remaining roster hole in the frontcourt, it’s not a starting position nor a good on-court fit. Plus, if Lauri were to play under the QO he couldn’t be traded next year without his new team losing Bird Rights to re-sign him next summer.

Lauri insisted on there being multiple offers out there for him, but as we know they aren’t as simple as a cap space team signing him outright as an unrestricted free agent. Any offer needs to involve the Bulls: whether its one of the few remaining cap space teams (just OKC?) that’d still entitle the Bulls the chance to match an offer sheet, or a capped-out team looking to work out a sign-and-trade with Lauri’s soon-to-be-former team.

AKME’s work in free agency so far has informed us that the Bulls are no longer hamstrung by a lack of creativity, competency, and ambition when it comes to working out deals without the convenience of cap space. I was pretty encouraged that while the old regime would’ve told Lauri ‘go find an offer sheet and grovel’, this new one wants to win basketball games more than negotiations, and actually has the wherewithal to create situations advantageous for the player and the team which only helps later moves when considering the relationship teams have with agents.

Now I’m less sure. Though the following is from Jake Fisher of BleacherReport who I consider a couple tiers below the more reputable rumormongers:

Dallas, New Orleans, Boston, and Minnesota have all shown interest in signing Markkanen to deals worth around $15 million in average annual value, sources said, but the Bulls are seeking a first-round pick in exchange for helping facilitate the transaction. Additionally, Chicago brass are requiring Markkanen’s new team to find a third trade partner to take on the outgoing salary needed to create space for Markkanen’s contract.

For a third team to take on unwanted salary, this hypothetical front office would also ask for draft-pick compensation. So any team that wants to add Markkanen now would have to send a first-round pick to Chicago and likely another first or two second-rounders elsewhere. It’s a clear roadblock the Bulls seem to have intentionally created.

“Chicago is playing this masterfully from no other perspective than a contract management standpoint,” said one team capologist. “It won’t do any favors relationship-wise, but they’re bleeding his market based on their tax situation, and nobody else can offer him any kind of money without them.”

Again, ‘one team capologist’ talking to Bleacher Report is not the greatest source, but the above sounds like old-school Bulls strongarm cheap-o nonsense. It was somewhat confirmed by a person very familiar with such things, KC Johnson:

One thing becoming clear in Markkanen situation is, with cap space drying up, Bulls can be picky/demanding in S&T ideas. Draft picks. No long-term money.

I am all for the Bulls trying to extract value, here, but it gives me the heebie-jeebies when such value is under “no long-term money”. The Bulls are well below (>$12M) the tax for this year, so is any mention of it and the phrase ‘long-term’ mean they are already planning ahead for next summer’s potential bill after a Zach LaVine raise?

The cap machinations for a Lauri sign-and-trade are a bit more complex due to base-year compensation, which is a somewhat arcane rule but I find it helps in understanding it to know the motivation behind it: essentially, it’s to prevent teams signing low-paid guys to balloon contracts trade just to trade them for a very expensive player. So for salary-matching purposes, the contract definition of outgoing salary is halved.

(This rule was used in Daniel Theis’s trade with the Rockets last week, where his new contract was $8M with Houston and he was acquired with a Traded Player Exception of theirs, but the Bulls received only half of that for the TPE they generated in exchange. Thus why they couldn’t use that to acquire Alex Caruso, it was only $4M)

If Lauri has offers for $15M, that means outgoing-salary for the Bulls would be $7.5M and would need to match that in incoming salary. That gets complex and pretty much as to involve a third team and/or TPEs involved, and a brief look says that though Fischer’s mentioned suitors all have pretty large TPEs only New Orleans - who Marc Stein (higher tier of rumormonger!) reported interested from - has one at $15M.

It’s true that the Bulls are the ones in the enviable position here. They could maybe package Lauri with more outgoing salary and assets to get another high-level player. If aiming lower, could get a player in return who, while likely overpaid, wouldn’t be ‘dead money’ and fill a hefty salary slot for a potential future move. Or they could get paid a draft pick to take on someone that’s more dead. It’d help Lauri too, and be part of the ‘relationship-building’ that we’re seeing with other moves the Bulls have made in the AKME era, even though Lauri is not with a high-profile agency (to say the least: he’s their only non-fringe NBA client).

They’re good options. I hoping it’s not where the Bulls are ‘creating a roadblock’ where they are ‘demanding’ both pick compensation and not taking on salary. That will limit the options considerably.