Bulls

4 Bulls questions with Lauri Markkanen sidelined again

Bulls

The injury bug is nothing new for the Bulls. But something about the most recent rash, which most recently includes Lauri Markkanen being ruled out for 2-to-4 weeks with a right shoulder sprain, feels especially ill-timed.

Markkanen was playing well. All of the Bulls are in job interview mode under a new head coach and front office regime.

"It’s an unfortunate situation, but for him this year, he’s really, really helped our team quite a bit," said head coach Billy Donovan before Monday's tip with the Wizards. "He’s (Markkanen) played really well, I think on both ends of the floor. We’ll miss him."

Now, they’ll have to make do for the next 7-13 games, depending on Markkanen’s recovery. Already without Wendell Carter Jr. (who, as of last update, is scheduled to be re-evaluated Feb. 23) and Otto Porter Jr. (no timetable), a strain is setting in.

Here are 4 Bulls questions in the aftermath of the Markkanen news:

Who starts?

The answer to this has been pretty cut and dry in the team’s first two games without Markkanen. Donovan trotted out a first unit of Coby White, Zach LaVine, Denzel Valentine, Patrick Williams and Daniel Gafford for the Bulls’ Saturday night win over the Magic and Monday night loss to the Wizards.

 

I thought it gave us another offensive player shooting-wise, another ball handler, another playmaker,” Donovan said Saturday of the decision to slide Valentine into Markkanen’s place. “They (the Magic) were starting the game small as well at the power forward spot. So we could kind of move around some people.”

Against suboptimal competition, and in limited action, that unit has performed well: In 17 minutes together between the Magic and Wizards games, they sported a 143.2 offensive rating and 97.4 defensive rating (+45.9 net). That doesn’t mean a ton yet, but is notable given Bulls starters’ well-documented struggles, especially at the start of games.

We’ll see if Donovan sticks with that unit. Vibes were high after an all-encompassing win over a Magic team that, severely short-handed, played small outside of Nikola Vučević. Donovan repeatedly bemoaned the Wizards’ size hurting them Monday, but unfortunately, small ball is going to be a necessity moving forward.

Who plays more?

The answer there is fairly cut and dry as well. Without Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., Donovan is effectively without his first and second-string center, as he’d frequented staggering Markkanen as the team’s backup 5 when healthy. Otto Porter Jr.’s absence, which doesn’t yet have an end in sight, opens another rotation spot.

These three stand to see the most substantial bumps, aside from Valentine’s obvious uptick and Patrick Williams, who since the first Knicks game on Feb. 1, has played north of 30 minutes every night.

  • Thus far, Donovan has displayed a preference for Cristiano Felício as the break-glass-in-case-of-emergency center, so expect at least 5-10 minutes per night from him, especially against bigger matchups and if Daniel Gafford’s habit of over-fouling persists (he picked up 5 personals by the 9:58 mark of the third quarter against the Wizards and typically has been capped around 15 minutes). 
  • Ryan Arcidiacono has also poked his head back in with the regulars, averaging 9.4 minutes in their last two games.
  • And Tomáš Satoranský has logged his two highest minutes totals since returning from a bout with COVID-19 while looking sharp. 

Of equal note: Don’t expect increased minutes for Thad Young and Garrett Temple on a nightly basis. Young has routinely been the Bulls’ first substitute (for Gafford) and second-best player, and both he and Temple have closed games on a regular basis. But Donovan has long maintained the importance of keeping the veterans’ minutes reasonable.

 

“I think to take him every single night into the mid-30s wouldn’t be good for our team and it wouldn’t be good for him,” Donovan said of Young, specifically. “Because I think right now we have a very, very productive and effective player with the way he has played these last couple weeks. We need to make sure he’s playing at a high level. We have a lot of games jam-packed in a short period of time and we really have to make sure that he -- all of these guys aren’t going to be fresh, I get it -- is still being productive and he’s not just logging so many minutes because of the absence of some frontcourt players.”

Young’s minutes, Donovan said, are doled out through mutual conversation. In his last three games, he played 32 minutes in Friday’s loss to the Magic, 26 minutes in a blowout win on the back leg of the Magic back-to-back and 28 minutes in the Wizards loss.

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Who steps up?

As long as Markkanen now on the shelf in addition to Carter and Porter, the Bulls have anywhere from 13 to 17 shots to fill per night. Here’s how they’ve redistributed the last two games:

 

FGA/g until Feb. 5

FGA/g last 2 games

Difference

Zach LaVine

18.3

25.5

+7.2

Denzel Valentine

 

6.9

15.0

+8.1

Coby White

13.7

11.0

-2.7

Thad Young

8.5

10.5

+2.0

Patrick Williams

8.1

10.0

+1.9

Garrett Temple

7.7

6.5

-1.2

Tomáš Satoranský

3.6

5.5

+1.9

Daniel Gafford

3.2

3.5

+0.3

 

Cristiano Felício

1.0

0.5

-0.5

Most notable: LaVine’s load figures only to increase as bodies drop around him. His usage rate is up to a whopping 38.9 percent across the last two games, in which he’s scored 74 points. Thad Young owns the next highest usage at 21.4 percent; Valentine the next highest point total at 31.

We know Valentine won’t shy away from taking on more responsibility in the shot-taking department. But White and Williams’ diets increasing would probably be the preferred option of most fans and observers, given their high minute totals and status as both starters and cornerstone candidates. 

How to evaluate the future of the frontcourt?

Since Carter was drafted, the Bulls have played 169 games. Markkanen and Carter have taken the court alongside one another for just 69 of those. You know better than to ask for the team’s record in those games, but in case you were curious: 22-47. A 26-win pace in an 82-game campaign.

Yes, coming up on three calendar years since that “frontcourt of the future” was formed, they have yet to play a full season’s worth of games together. With restricted free agency looming for Markkanen and rookie extension eligibility for Carter this offseason, extended absences for both throws another wrench into evaluation.

“I don’t think it’s great. Anytime you miss good players it certainly impacts your team and impacts your roster,” Donovan said.

And while the Bulls coach was quick to highlight the difference between acute, contact-related injuries and “over-use” injuries (he sees Markkanen and Carter’s recent ailments to align with the former), their track record is what it is. Another snag in the Bulls’ rebuild, and it feels all too familiar.

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