When the Chicago Bulls traded for Nikola Vucevic before the trade deadline a couple weeks ago, it signaled that this franchise is all-in on building around Zach LaVine for its future. After all, a team doesn't trade for a 30-year-old, two-time All-Star if they don't want to win soon. LaVine is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2021-22 season, and Chicago will need to do everything it can to build a winner between now and then to convince him to stay with the Bulls.
First steps on that mission to re-sign LaVine were taken at the trade deadline, when the Bulls executed moves that involved parting ways with five players, many of whom were drafted in the last five years by Chicago. It showed the new front office is chomping at the bit to put wins on the board after several years of losing and continuously rebuilding.
Going forward, a core centered around Vucevic and LaVine may be enough to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. However, the elephant in the room is where Lauri Markkanen's fits in all this. There were reports leading up to the deadline of the Bulls listening on trade offers for Markkanan, and at one point he was reported to be included on a deal that would've brought Lonzo Ball to Chicago. None of that materialized, though, and he remains with the franchise -- but for how much longer?
Markkanen was demoted to the bench in favor of Vucevic and Thaddeus Young, and although head coach Billy Donovan said he took the demotion "great," Markkanen said after that game multiple times, "I know I'm a starter in this league." Entering this season, the former No. 7 overall pick took a gamble on himself when he and the Bulls were unable to agree on a contract extension. It feels as though everything is heading toward Markkanen and the Bulls parting ways this summer when he becomes a restricted free agent, which could be a good thing for other teams around the league.
Despite the ups and downs of Markkanen's tenure with the Bulls, this remains true: He's a 7-footer who has consistently been a strong 3-point shooter. That alone will be enough to entice teams to sign him to an offer sheet, made even better by the fact that because of several injuries and a lack of consistent improvement, his value has never been lower as he enters restricted free agency.
But it's not all bad news for Markkanen. Although he's been largely underwhelming with the Bulls, he's still posting some of the best offensive numbers of his career this season.
Markkanen ranks in the 70th percentile in 3-point shooting among bigs, per Cleaning the Glass, and is even better from the corner, where he knocks down 46 percent of his shots. He's having the most efficient season of his career around the rim, making almost 70 percent of his attempts, something that he's always struggled with as he's tried to put on muscle to match up better in the paint.
He's also only 23 years old, and although he's missed a handful of games in the past three seasons due to injuries, he hasn't had any major injury that would make him a severe risk. In the right situation -- and for the right amount of money -- he could be useful on a team in need of some frontcourt depth and 3-point shooting. He would also benefit greatly from being on a team with an elite playmaker who could set him up for good looks on the perimeter, something that he has never really had in Chicago.
An aspect of Markkanen's game that will really intrigue teams is his ability to move well without the ball for someone of his size. While most of his shots come as a spot-up shooter around the arc, he's also been effective this season scoring off screens.
Whether that's getting the angle on a smaller defender to get to the rim for a tough and-one finish:
... using a screen set by Vucevic to get free for a dunk in the paint:
... or coming off a double screen to lose the defender for an open 3-point look:
Markkanen's ability to move without the ball is one of his greatest strengths on offense, and it's one of the reasons he recently saw some action at the small forward position.
"With all the cutting and moving that I think Lauri's very effective at, we've tried to put him in some pindowns and we've tried to run him off screens. He's done a nice job with that," Donovan said. "... The difference for him right now is he's dealing with guys probably who are much more nimble and quicker on their feet and they're more comfortable chasing off screens than maybe it was when he was at [power forward]."
It may seem odd for Markkanen to be spending time at the small forward position given his size. Yet he moves around the floor like a jumbo small forward, and while he doesn't have any of the other skills that would come with that position -- mainly shot creation and ball-handling -- his shooting and size make him a tough draw for all defenders.
As good a shooter as Markkanen has shown he can be, though, there are obvious holes in his game which will make any team taking him on a little weary. Despite his size, he has no post game to speak of, which makes it hard for him to take advantage of smaller defenders when they're switched onto him. Markkanen also hasn't been a terribly efficient mid-range shooter in three of his four seasons in the league, and ranks in the 44th percentile among bigs in the league on mid-range shots this season.
For a 7-footer he's pretty athletic, but he's not a serious lob threat on pick-and-rolls, and when he's given the opportunity to create for himself he often ends up forcing up a shot in traffic or committing a turnover.
Then there's his defense. Check out this series of events that led to two easy buckets because of Markkanen's poor instincts on that end of the floor:
In his defense, when Jokic is throwing full-court passes with Patrick Mahomes-level precision, it's hard to get back in transition to stop the ball. But surely that's in the scouting report when playing the Nuggets, and it doesn't excuse Markkanen ball-watching when he should be making sure that Michael Porter Jr. doesn't have an easy path to the rim.
For someone of Markkanen's height, he offers no real rim protection in the paint, and his rebounding numbers have continuously dipped each season. All of these cons are likely reasons why the Bulls and Markkanen couldn't come to an agreement on a contract extension, and why he's been moved to the bench in favor of Young, who offers more on defense while Vucevic is a better offensive weapon than him.
But a change in scenery might do wonders for Markkanen's development. Imagine him getting fed passes by Luka Doncic as a member of the Mavericks, who are positioned to have around $34 million in cap space this summer. Or playing around guys like LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier as a member of the suddenly exciting Hornets, who are also projected to have around $25 million of cap space to work with. There are several teams that are projected to have an ample amount of cap space to sign players, including Markkanen; it just may not be what he thought he'd get before this season started.
There's also the possibility the Bulls try to get something in return for Markkanen in a sign-and-trade for him with another team. The point is, it doesn't feel like Markkanen will be with the Bulls past this season after being pushed aside to make room for Vucevic. However, while he certainly has his limitations on both ends of the floor, his size and 3-point shooting make him someone to keep an eye on in free agency, especially if the price is right. If he's able to turn things around and show more of the player we saw in his second year where he was averaging 18 points and nine rebounds a night, then whichever team signs him will likely have gotten a bargain.