The stakes of Lauri Markkanen's fourth NBA season came clearly into focus when the preseason deadline to agree on an extension of his rookie-scale contract passed without a pact.
The Bulls forward is now set to enter restricted free agency next offseason. The time is nigh to prove his full worth to a new regime tasked with fixing an underperforming roster it largely inherited.
"It's another motivation for me," Markkanen said in his first comments to reporters since the deadline. "Obviously it's not the main thing, but obviously it fuels my fire to play even harder and do what this team needs me to do."
Of his primary motivations, Markkanen said: "I didn't play up to my abilities last year in my opinion, so that's the main thing. And I think we're moving in the right direction with the team right now, and that's my main focus."
Make no mistake: Markkanen wanted to get a deal done before the start of the 2020-21 campaign. He has repeatedly professed his desire to be in Chicago long-term. At the start of training camp, he added that he planned to pressure his agent to finalize an extension by Dec. 21.
"Obviously disappointing, I wanted to get a deal done," he said. "But that happened, and we're moving on, and I'm 100 percent committed to this team. We keep moving forward and we'll see what happens."
There is a human element to these types of decisions too, which Bulls coach Billy Donovan understands.
"I spoke to Lauri probably when we were in Oklahoma and just wanted to make sure he was doing OK," Donovan said. "As I mentioned around that time, those conversations between his agent and Artūras (Karnišovas) and Marc (Eversley) are between them. But I just wanted to make sure he was in a good space mentally in terms of going out there and playing. He seems like he is. He seems to be doing well. He’s working hard. He’s been totally engaged. I feel good about that part of it."
The two sides weren't close to a deal. That was widely reported the day of the deadline, and Markkanen confirmed it in comments Tuesday.
"I don't think it was very close," Markkanen said. "I talked to [my agent] obviously a lot last couple days, and it (the Bulls' offer) just wasn't something I would take, and that's the end of it. So we move forward and we got our first game tomorrow, so that's what we're focused on."
To give a sense of how far apart the two sides were, when Jimmy Butler famously rejected the Bulls' extension offer to bet on himself in 2014, roughly $4 million over the duration of a four-year offer separated Butler and the Bulls. In these negotiations, roughly $4 million annually separated the two sides, sources told NBC Sports Chicago.
“They had their reasons, and we had our side of the case," Markkanen said. "Like I said, I’m not going to go into details. It didn’t happen at this time, and we keep moving forward.”
Now comes the basketball. The Bulls open the first half of their 2020-21 regular season slate Wednesday by hosting the Atlanta Hawks. It will be Markkanen's first chance to right a down third season, in which he battled multiple injuries, played both inconsistent minutes and in a hands-off role, and posted career lows across the board.
Could Markkanen see an uptick in minutes come the regular season? He averaged 29.8 last season, 2.5 less than his second year, and just 0.1 more than his rookie year. In the moment, that total didn't befit his building block status.
"I’m willing to play more, but whatever this team needs. We’re trying to play with that high pace and just trying to run up the floor at both ends of the court, so that’s our goal and what we’ve been emphasizing. I think I’m in good enough shape to play more minutes, but that’s up to coach," Markkanen said, later adding: “I don’t know how the minutes are going to go, to be honest. I think that’s a question for him (Donovan). We haven’t really talked about it.”
How about usage? Markkanen's 11.8 field goal attempts per game ranked third on the team, and marked a career low. So, too, was his 21.1 percent usage rate.
"I’ve said it multiple times, I like where our offense is right now. I keep moving on the offensive end and am getting different looks than I got last year," Markkanen said. "I think it (the usage) has been higher, I would assume. I don’t know the numbers. But I really like the system and how we keep moving the ball and playing unselfish.”
Donovan said he's still working out the wrinkles in how he'll organize his rotation, especially given the novela-length inactive list they grappled with during the preseason, for reasons related to injury and COVID-19 protocol.
"When you have guys coming in and out, that’s hard," he said. "I don’t feel comfortable just giving an exact number of, ‘Hey, I want Zach (LaVine) to play this many minutes, and I want Coby (White) to play this many minutes, I want Lauri to play this many minutes and Wendell (Carter Jr.).’ I think we’ve got to see how the game’s going."
Markkanen has seen the highs of being a seventh overall draft pick and billed as a franchise cornerstone after flashes of prolificacy. He's seen the lows of major regression and struggles with injury. Now it's time to see which side of that spectrum he settles.
For the time being, he's focused on what he can control.
"It wasn’t really on my mind. It was kind of an extra motivation. But I did my work. I went day-by-day and did my work in everything I could toward that," Markkanen said of negotiations, which loomed throughout the offseason, camp and preseason. "It just motivated me more, and that’s how I’m going to keep it. Obviously, that added to the list, it’s going to keep me locked in every single game. So I’m looking forward to tomorrow and starting the season.”
NBC Sports Chicago's K.C. Johnson contributed to this report.