Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.
If the NBA never resolves its regular season, that will be just fine with a large swath of the Bulls’ fanbase. With a 22-43 record through 65 games, and just two of those wins coming against teams above-.500, this team’s fate was all but sealed before the COVID-19 pandemic ground the NBA's schedule to a halt.
But there were reasons to invest in the stretch run — among them, the hope of a small reclamation for Lauri Markkanen, whose third season began with unbridled optimism, but was littered with disappointment.
That initial optimism wasn’t misguided. In Markkanen’s second year, he averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game, bumped his workload on steady efficiency from his rookie campaign and amassed a month of February for the ages, posting averages of 26 points and 12 rebounds on rising-star-level volume (36.3 minutes, 18.1 field goal attempts, 26.9% usage). All of that packed into an agile, sharp-shooting, 7-foot frame, and he looked like a budding face of the franchise.
Then, year three happened, and with it, regression across the board. With 50 games under his belt (he appeared in 52 in 2018-19), Markkanen is averaging career lows in points (14.7), rebounds (6.3) and field goal attempts (11.8), as well as shooting career-worst marks from the field (42.5%) and 3-point range (34.4%). As of this writing, he’s averaging just 0.1 minutes more than his rookie season, and 2 ½ less than his sophomore campaign.
The high-point was 35-point, 17-rebound, 17-for-25 shooting performance in Charlotte on opening night, but after that, Markkanen never eclipsed 19 field goal attempts in a game again (he had 10 such games in 2018-19). His best extended stretch of play came in December, when he averaged 17.6 points on 50.8% shooting (41.6% from deep) in 14 games the Bulls finished 7-7. In his other 36 contests, he averaged 13.6 points on 38.9% shooting (31% from deep).
You get the picture. But none of that changes the fact that the Bulls will (eventually) enter this offseason and the 2021 season reliant on Markkanen to re-discover his second-year form and the potential that leapt off the screen in it. Crucial to that happening is understanding why his third season played out the way it did.
The answer to that question is a complex one, a perfect storm of adversity.
Injuries undoubtedly played some part. Rumors of a nagging oblique ailment colored Markkanen’s early-season shooting struggles. A badly sprained ankle hampered him throughout January. He missed nearly six weeks from Jan. 22 to March 4 with an early stress reaction in his right pelvis. In four games returned from that injury, Markkanen averaged 11.8 points and 3.8 boards on ever-increasing minutes restrictions before the novel coronavirus cut that spell short.
Coaching was a factor, too. The Bulls’ freshly-minted offensive system yielded the league’s 29th-rated team offense, but Markkanen’s production was its greatest individual casualty. His catch-and-shoot and spot-up diets increased, his drives and possessions as the roll/pop-man in the pick-and-roll decreased and his efficiency tanked across the board. A player at his best on the move spent too many games at a standstill. Further, uneven usage and playing time resulted in Markkanen’s role in the offense waxing and waning drastically game-to-game (he only posted consecutive 20-point outings once), — sometimes half-to-half.
What’s more, late-season comments (e.g. when he said proving that he “can be aggressive and get to do multiple things and not be a spot-up shooter” as a goal for the stretch run after his first game back from the pelvis injury) pointed to friction between Markkanen’s desires and the Bulls’ schemes.
But, of course, a share of the blame falls on Markkanen. Bulls coach Jim Boylen likes to talk about controlling the controllables — for Markkanen, he often cited crashing the glass as a means to assuage his offensive woes. But according to Cleaning the Glass’ metrics, Markkanen’s defensive rebounding rate sank from being in the 83rd percentile for his position in his sophomore season, to 41st in this one. His on-ball defense didn’t take a step forward, he struggled to attack mismatches on the offensive end and, while there is a responsibility for coaches and players to get their stars involved in the flow of the game, Markkanen can and should grab the reins more than he did this year.
Again: A perfect storm. A nicked up, third-year player with a deferential, team-first temperament regresses while attempting to adjust to a new offensive system not directly catered to his strengths. In retrospect, it’s not so unbelievable.
Still, the solution must come quickly, for Markkanen’s sake and the Bulls’. Entering the offseason, this rebuild is as fraught as ever, changes are reportedly coming to the team’s front office and Markkanen is extension-eligible come July (though that date could change in the post-coronavirus cap environment we inhabit). Markkanen’s side will want a big-money, long-term commitment from the Bulls in line with the cornerstone distinction bestowed upon him, but he hasn’t played up to that standard on a consistent basis. From an optics perspective, a staring match benefits no one.
Bottom line: Lauri Markkanen is not the player he was this season. He’s not the player he was in Feb. 2019 either. The true Markkanen lies somewhere in the middle, and whenever the Bulls resume operations, finding his place on that spectrum is perhaps the most important issue facing the team.