The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of one of the NBA's more noteworthy offseasons, one which has included multiple flashy signings.
The Bulls, as they say, may be back.
Upgrading the roster around Zach LaVine has been a clear objective dating back to the trade deadline, with Chicago's front office determined to clinch a postseason berth before the 26-year-old All-Star wing can reach his own free agency in 2022.
LaVine has pledged to Bulls staffers his commitment to improve defensively next season. Meanwhile, Chicago spent weeks preparing scenarios to add the right mix of supplementary creators and fourth-quarter closers.
The Bulls splurged on a four-year, $85 million contract for restricted free agent point guard Lonzo Ball in a sign-and-trade with the New Orleans Pelicans that is currently under investigation by the league office for potential tampering violations. After targeting Derrick Rose, the team quickly added backup point guard Alex Caruso. Chicago also swept in and landed All-Star forward DeMar DeRozan through yet another sign-and-trade with the San Antonio Spurs.
The DeRozan deal was just as notable for who it did not include: Lauri Markkanen, who many league insiders expected would head to San Antonio in return for DeRozan. Markkanen, a talented 24-year-old stretch power forward, now finds himself in restricted-free-agency limbo, where several teams interested in obtaining his services have stalled in their approach.
Most league personnel do not expect the NBA to overturn the Ball transaction. Some team staffers contacted by Bleacher Report speculated that New Orleans and Chicago could be penalized with some form of draft-pick forfeiture, but the deal has already been announced as official by both the Pelicans and Bulls.
Adding All-Star talent is always expensive, but any loss of draft assets would particularly sting Chicago. Trading for Nikola Vucevic this past spring cost the Bulls two first-round picks, and DeRozan required another first-rounder and two future second-round picks.
Landing Ball always seemed like the Bulls' top priority this summer, dating back to their noted interest at the trade deadline, when they were unable to close a deal with the Pelicans. Yet Chicago personnel worked just as diligently plotting scenarios to land DeRozan, hedging against the possibility of New Orleans matching Ball's offer sheet.
DeRozan garnered interest from several other teams early in free agency, such as Philadelphia, Portland, Phoenix, Golden State, Boston and New York. The Knicks quickly pivoted to splurge on Evan Fournier. For Golden State, acquiring DeRozan would have necessitated a complicated salary-matching sign-and-trade with the Spurs that would have sent out Kelly Oubre. But that framework never gained much traction, sources said.
For a time, there was a belief in league circles that DeRozan would have taken a pay cut for a championship contender on this season's $5.9 million taxpayer mid-level exception. That notion seemed to be confirmed when DeRozan told Fox Sports' Shannon Sharpe on his podcast:
"It's all about winning at this point. Going into my 13th season and seeing all these guys just competing for a championship. At this point, you got to weigh out the opportunity to win a championship kind of more. Especially with the career I've had. I've been fortunate to make a lot of money, but at this point, the ultimate goal is to compete for a championship."
However, DeRozan never truly entertained that mid-level salary figure, sources said. The Bulls were the main franchise to actively pursue an agreement with DeRozan as free agency opened, while the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks prioritized chasing Kyle Lowry. Portland, Phoenix and Philadelphia would have needed to add DeRozan through intricate sign-and-trade scenarios, thus slowing their pursuits.
Many around the league believed Detroit Pistons and former Raptors coach Dwane Casey coveted DeRozan. Rumors swirled that the franchise cleared roughly $20.2 million to pursue Norman Powell and DeRozan. But Powell re-signed with Portland, and the Pistons did not contact DeRozan's representation before the Bulls offered a three-year, $85 million deal.
But that's when the recounting of Chicago's offseason gets murky, specifically as it relates to Markkanen. Several sources with knowledge of the situation believe Markkanen was originally headed to San Antonio in the sign-and-trade that brought DeRozan to the Bulls, and Thaddeus Young would have remained in Chicago. But then the trade package was apparently altered.
There are others, though, who attest Markkanen was never seriously discussed between Spurs and Bulls officials. Young has intrigued San Antonio dating back to his days on Sam Hinkie's trade block in Philadelphia. The deal also allowed Chicago to shed the final year and $10.2 million on Al-Farouq Aminu's contract.
Either way, each team that has inquired about Markkanen would have to now add him via sign-and-trade, as cap space has dwindled across the league. 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."
With that, there's a belief among many league personnel that Markkanen will ultimately be forced into accepting a one-year qualifying offer that would pay him roughly $9 million and allow him to reach unrestricted free agency next summer, just like LaVine. Yet, there's also a strong sense Markkanen has no intent to return to Chicago on that structure.
Markkanen has always reported to offseason team workouts and fit seamlessly within the Bulls' locker room, but has recently taken to Finnish media and voiced his desire to play for a different team. It now appears Markkanen will be in no rush to return from Finland to Chicago while his interested suitors continue exploring trade scenarios with third teams.
How long could the standoff last? Goran Dragic remains in a similar limbo, which sources with knowledge of his standing with the Toronto Raptors said could potentially linger until September. Raptors officials sought to find a third team interested in acquiring Dragic from Toronto's sign-and-trade that sent Lowry to Miami, sources said, yet no front office was willing to exchange draft capital for a player they believe Toronto will ultimately buy out.
Raptors brass will meet with Dragic's team at Las Vegas Summer League to further discuss their situation, sources said. The veteran point guard, expectedly, has designs on playing in the postseason and has publicly conveyed his intrigue in teaming with countryman Luka Doncic in Dallas. Perhaps he and Markkanen will both end up as Mavericks at long last.
Markkanen's dynamic, though, appears far more limiting, especially as the Bulls look to recoup a draft pick Chicago mortgaged to bring on DeRozan in the first place. The Bulls have certainly made headlines in free agency. Perhaps a few more could arise the longer this situation festers.
Additional notes around the league:
The Celtics are exploring trade opportunities for point guard Kris Dunn and forward Bruno Fernando before concluding conversations with free agent Dennis Schroder.
The Suns still have an open roster spot and part of the mid-level exception to play with, and Phoenix is entertaining various options, including gauging rival interest in 2020 lottery pick Jalen Smith, sources said.
New Orleans and Sacramento were said to be discussing a Buddy Hield-for-Josh Hart sign-and-trade baked into the Pelicans' draft-week deal with Memphis, although it's unclear if that dynamic remains plausible as Hart is still unsigned.
Jake Fischer covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is the author of Built to Lose: How the NBA's Tanking Era Changed the League Forever.