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Will Chicago's Bold Move Keep Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen in Town?

A. Sherrod BlakelyContributor IApril 14, 2021

Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen (24) and Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine (8) in the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, March 19, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

There's growing optimism the Chicago Bulls are starting to put a squad together that will allow them to shed the losing franchise label that has dogged them for years.

No, these Bulls will not be confused with "The Last Dance" Bulls who dominated the NBA in the 1990s with six title runs (1990-91 to 1992-93, 1995-96 to 1997-98) or even the Tom Thibodeau-coached teams that averaged 51 wins in his five seasons (2010-11 to 2014-15).

These Bulls have made the kind of strides that have placed them on the outskirts of relevancy, a squad that in the eyes of rival executives and scouts is closer to breaking through as a playoff contender than it is to remaining in bad basketball purgatory, which had been Chicago's home for the previous three seasons.

"They still got some pieces to add and some guys of their own to figure out what to do with," an Eastern Conference scout texted. "But for a change, things are starting to look up for the Bulls."

The most tangible indicator of Chicago's direction stems from its trade-deadline acquisition of two-time All-Star Nikola Vucevic from the Orlando Magic.

The 6'11", 260-pounder has been among the better inside-outside centers in recent years.

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Vucevic is averaging a career-high 24.0 points and 11.4 rebounds per game through 54 contests this season with the Bulls and Orlando Magic.

The addition also bodes well for keeping the franchise's best player happy.

Convincing Zach LaVine the Bulls are building a playoff contender is important when you consider the 26-year-old's "big focus" coming into the season was to get Chicago into the playoffs.

That's why rival executives anticipate the Bulls will try to lock up LaVine with a contract extension (he will make $19.5 million this season and next) but know he'll likely let his deal lapse, become an unrestricted free agent and sign what will be a more lucrative multiyear max pact.

The only question among rival executives is whether his next deal will be with Chicago.

"That's why them getting Vooch was a really big deal," an Eastern Conference executive said. "Players want to get paid, just like we all do. But they also want to win, and guys like Zach have been around the block long enough to know they can't win in this league by themselves. LeBron's the best to do it, and he couldn't win it all by himself. Even he needed help."

The exec added, "Them getting Vooch sent a clear message to Zach that yes, Chicago is serious about trying to put together a winner here and now."

But the addition of Vucevic has also meant a reduction in playing time for Lauri Markkanen, a soon-to-be restricted free agent.

The 7-foot Markkanen, the seventh pick in the 2017 draft, did not come to terms on a contract extension prior to the season. The sides were reportedly about $4 million apart in the first-year salary of a multi-year deal.

Vucevic and Markkanen are above-average scorers for bigs but struggle mightily as a defensive tandem.

That's why the Bulls have limited their time together on the court, and why rival executives are bullish on the idea Markkanen will play elsewhere next season.

"In the right kind of system, Markkanen could be a really good player," the East exec said. "I don't know if Chicago is it; it's certainly not it if they think him and Vucevic can play together."

Andy Clayton-King/Associated Press

According to NBA.com, Vucevic and Markkanen have played together for 89 minutes. Their offensive rating during that stretch is 105.2, while their defensive rating is a woeful 122.3.

It remains to be seen if Markkanen will accept a reserve role beyond this season or pursue a more prominent role elsewhere.

The pool of teams that will have the salary-cap space to make a run at Markkanen is limited, but multiple executives and scouts anticipate the San Antonio Spurs will make a strong offer this summer.

Without LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio has a need for a stretch big with Markkanen's size and skill set.

Chicago can match any offer to retain him, but teams have gotten creative in making it harder for squads to keep their coveted restricted free agents without paying steep prices.

The Sacramento Kings went into last offseason feeling good about their chances to re-sign Bogdan Bogdanovic. But the Atlanta Hawks offered him a four-year, $72 million contract that included a player option for the fourth year, a 15 percent trade kicker as well as a no-trade clause for the 2020-21 season.

Retaining Bogdanovic would have significantly impacted Sacramento's short-term cap flexibility, limiting what it could do in terms of roster building, and made it extremely costly to trade him. And then he could have left after three seasons.

So, the Kings let him go without getting anything in return.

In addition to Markkanen, the Bulls have also moved Coby White to a reserve role in the last month. With the Markkanen decision, it created a stronger second unit.

Chicago head coach Billy Donovan last week talked about Markkanen's and White's new roles.

"They're probably not going to be featured guys; just calling it like it is," he said. "But they're very important pieces to our team, and we need them to play at a high level."

The Bulls have the pieces to form a solid nucleus that could catapult them into a playoff team with room to grow.

But can they find a way to keep their youthful talent both connected and content with the roles they're being asked to play?

Welcome to the land of relevancy, Bulls.

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