Bulls

Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.

Past installments: What is Zach LaVine's ceiling? | Should Bulls lock in Kris Dunn long-term after career-reviving year? | Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term

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.

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Arturas Karnisovas vows to get creative with Bulls' development in long offseason

Arturas Karnisovas vows to get creative with Bulls' development in long offseason

Talk about cruel coincidence.

The Bulls were in Orlando, Fla. to play a game that never happened on March 11, the night that commissioner Adam Silver suspended the NBA season. And they won’t be in Orlando in July when the league attempts to restart following the COVID-19-induced hiatus.

Nothing has been easy about the Bulls’ 2019-20 season, which makes the unprecedented nature of the offseason seem fitting. Roughly nine months between games for a young team that features a new management regime is hardly ideal.

“I do agree with you that not playing puts us in a competitive disadvantage,” executive vice president Arturas Karnisovas said on a Saturday conference call. “But I think there are creative ways to (stay sharp).”

By all accounts, and in their own words, Karnisovas and new general manager Marc Eversley thrive on relationships, face-to-face interaction and living in the gym. Until Wednesday, when the Bulls followed city guidelines to open the Advocate Center for voluntary, socially distanced workouts, they never even had that opportunity.

Karnisovas said he and Eversley are scheduled to be in Chicago soon. The problem is, the players don’t have to be. That’s why there’s talk between the eight teams excluded from the restart and both the league and players association about alternative methods to navigate an unprecedented offseason.

“We’re getting now on calls and we’re having conversations about how we can develop our players and how we can have a structure in place to get some practicing and possibly some scrimmaging possibly in the offseason to catch up to those teams that are going to be playing. The work obviously never stops,” Karnisovas said. “I informed the players that we will inform them depending on what the league is going to allow us to do this summer, and we’re going to go from there.”

This type of communication with players has been consistent since the Bulls hired the new management regime.

“They've been great.They've both been keeping us abreast of everything that's going on, especially during the time where we were trying to figure out if we could get back in the gym or not or during the time where they were figuring out who's going to go to Orlando,” Thaddeus Young said. “Arturas is very, very good as far as communicating. Marc is great… Obviously, this is a situation where they can't really do their job because we're not playing basketball, and I'm sure they're anxious to really get on the job and get a grasp of things. But they've been great as far as reaching out and talking to us all and making sure they're staying in sync with us.”

Zach LaVine agreed.

“You don’t have any expectations going into something new. But as a player, it’s always good to have them reach out to you. They did that the first day,” LaVine said. “Arturas reached out to me and I’ve had several conversations with him, him just checking in to see how we’re doing, having Zoom calls, text meetings. He has called me individually as well. Same with Marc.

“A lot of it is just getting to know the team. Some of it was just general conversation like, ‘How you’re doing. What have you been doing in Seattle? How are things out there concerning coronavirus and [racial injustice protests] that have been going on.’ It’s been good — general conversation, workouts, what’s been going on with the team, why this didn’t work, why this worked. They’ve been extremely involved.”

Karnisovas said the ideal scenario, which would have to be agreed upon between the league and players association, would be to hold team-oriented activities like practices and possibly scrimmages with other non-bubble teams.

“There’s going to be a lot of player development and individual work, but I also would like to see some team activity, as well, because there’s so much time away from the game of basketball,” Karnisovas said. “Just playing games, I would look for the league to see something like that, to simulate something like that this summer.”

In a typical offseason, teams can’t mandate players to remain in-market. In a TV interview in his native Czech Republic, Tomas Satoransky said he may practice with a team in Prague during the offseason. Karnisovas said Lauri Markkanen has remained in Chicago for now but his family has been back and forth to Finland. LaVine is in Seattle. Young said he’s in Texas for now.

“We’re exchanging a lot of conversations and proposals with the league,” Karnisovas said. “The players in the market, they’ve already been coming into the Advocate Center for individual work. So hopefully I’ll be able to see them. The players out of the market, we’ll continue talking to them. And once we have more direction from the league, we’ll propose a bunch of plans to our players for the summer.

“I’m confident because I think eight teams is a huge part of our league. And I think the league’s interest is to support those teams as well as they can. The proposed structure of some practices and some scrimmages that we would like to see this summer, I think it’s not too much to ask."

RELATED: Arturas Karnisovas pledges to make bounceback plan with Lauri Markkanen

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Arturas Karnisovas pledges to make bounceback plan with Lauri Markkanen

Arturas Karnisovas pledges to make bounceback plan with Lauri Markkanen

The case of Lauri Markkanen’s third-year regression is multi-pronged.

Across the board, the one-time wunderkin’s production sank, his minutes and opportunity in the offense fluctuated, and his general assertiveness seemed to wane. What’s to blame for the disappointing campaign? Some combination of Markkanen, the Bulls’ coaching staff, teamwide tumult, and, perhaps, too-lofty expectations to begin with. Injuries — respective oblique (soreness) and ankle (sprain) ailments he played through, and a stress reaction in his pelvis that sidelined him 15 games — undoubtedly played a role, as well.

Regardless of the culprit of Markkanen’s woes, if the Bulls’ rebuild is to get back on track, their second cornerstone must rebound in Year 4 and beyond. New general manager Marc Eversley has pledged to “learn more about” the reasons behind Markkanen’s struggles in pursuit of that mission.

Arturas Karnisovas did the same in an end-of-season conference call with reporters Saturday, adding that he’s personally spoken to Markkanen, who remained in the Chicago area throughout the NBA’s hiatus, on multiple occasions. The fruits of those conversations appear to be positive thus far, with hunger to improve a theme.

“We’ve spoken to Lauri numerous times. He’s been very patient, stayed in the market. His family is now with him,” Karnisovas said. “I spoke to him about last year. He’s eager to get back to the gym and improve. He was disappointed by the overall result (last season). Every player wants to win. He’s about winning, as well. Our objective is to get the best version of Lauri next year. We agreed in conversations that this is our objective, and we’re going to try to do it.”

Also worth adding to the to-do list could be hammering out a long-term extension with Markkanen, who is eligible for one when the offseason officially strikes. Karnisovas didn’t address that dynamic with reporters, instead impressing the importance of getting under the same roof and laying the foundation for a strong personal relationship with Markkanen before jumping to any conclusions.

“I’ll look forward to meeting him face-to-face. Before accountability, I have to have a personal relationship with him,” Karnisovas said.

That quality of Karnisovas’ thoughtful leadership style has permeated the decision-making process on head coach Jim Boylen’s future, as well. Karnisovas reiterated what has been widely reported in the call: A decision on Boylen is not imminent, and will wait until Karnisovas (who is “on the way” to Chicago) is able to meet Boylen in person and establish a relationship with him.

As for Markkanen, expectations remain high, even after a down year. And fulfilling that expectation will be a collaborative process, to hear Karnisovas tell it. That and management clearly viewing Markkanen as an asset worth pouring time and resources into are refreshing sentiments.

“We’ll set expectations, which are pretty high,” Karnisovas said. “And it’s about improvement. Each player, from talking to them, they were disappointed with last year’s result.

“We’re going to strive to get better. Same thing with Lauri. We have a lot of time this offseason. We’re going to put a plan together for him. We’re going to schedule and do that.”

Indeed, with the Bulls excluded from the NBA’s 22-team resumption plan, a potential nine-month-plus layoff between games looms. For a team as young as these Bulls, that type of dry spell has the potential to be detrimental to development and continuity. In that vein, Karnisovas said he’d favor “some team-oriented activities… practices and possibly scrimmages” as curriculum for the eight teams not assembling in Orlando as a way to stay loose. 

The bright side to all of the above: The fresh-faced front office has nothing but time to address all that riddled the Bulls in 2019-20. Player development, which begins with relationships, will clearly be a tenet of the new regime. And there’s no better place to begin putting their words on that topic to action than with Markkanen.

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