Since the Bulls traded for Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine in June 2016 the franchise has played 114 regular-season games. Including 10 overtime periods they’ve played 5,522 minutes as a team. Thanks to numerous injuries at different times that three-man combination, expected to be the core of a rebuild that was going to take time anyway, has played together in 14 of those games and totaled 266 minutes.
That’s 12.3 percent of the potential games and 4.81 percent of the potential minutes.
If those read like small amounts, they should. Consider that the three-man combination of Robin Lopez, Denzel Valentine and Jerian Grant played 285 minutes together last season alone. Ten different three-man lineups have already played 300 or more minutes for the Bulls this season.
Those LaVine/Markkanen/Dunn percentages will only shrink for the next few weeks as LaVine works his way back from a sprained ankle suffered last week in Mexico City. And while the Bulls have been playing for Lottery balls and not playoff positioning since Opening Night in Philadelphia, it’s still awful timing for a team attempting to answer questions about what they have in Year 2 of a rebuild.
“Well first of all it’s heartbreaking for me, and I know John and Gar and Jerry and Michael, it’s heartbreaking. (The) injury thing is out of your control, it’s very difficult,” head coach Jim Boylen said. “But we’ll just get them together when they’re available and we’ll evaluate it from there. I don’t know what else to do really. Other teams go through it. It’s part of the league. We just have to do the best we can when it’s possible to play them together.”
LaVine’s loss isn’t critical for this season. The Bulls aren’t playing for wins and losses, and more of the latter could result in a top draft pick in a class that appears to be stockpiled with stars. The Bulls are 5-9 when all three play, a 29.5-win pace; when one or more of them are out, they’re 29-71, a 24-win pace. So, not much different in the short-term.
The critical aspect of LaVine sitting on the bench is that it halts the chemistry of the three players (and Wendell Carter Jr.) that’s going to be necessary for the Bulls before they begin winning again. LaVine admitted as much, also noting that “we’ve still got a lot of time. We’re gonna get it down.”
There are still 50 games left, but it’s not as much as LaVine might think. The myriad injuries – no one has lost more games due to them than the Bulls – gives everyone’s favorite front office even less time to evaluate the core before an offseason in which they’ll have, albeit like many other teams, a boatload of cash to spend in free agency. Their spending habits the previous two offseasons have been leading up to the summer of 2019; they’ll need as much intelligence on how this core works together as possible before deciding which route to take.
When we wrote in November that the Bulls rebuild was exactly where it was supposed to be, the returns of Markkanen and Dunn were imminent. LaVine was playing like an All-Star averaging 25 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists, and the next chapter was about to begin.
Well, that chapter lasted two games and 11 minutes. Then Nikola Vucevic stepped on LaVine’s foot in the final minute of Thursday’s loss to the Magic and it presented the Bulls their fifth long-term injury of a season that was 30 games old. Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen suffered three of them, and a fourth came at the expense of Bobby Portis, a restricted free agent at year’s end who the Bulls will have to make an eight-figure decision on.
There’s the coaching cliché that Boylen uttered, that injuries happen to every team. Fred Hoiberg’s line was that no one was going to feel sorry for them. But no team’s been hit like this, let alone a rebuilding one short on talent and shorter on depth. A next-man-up mentality is fine and certainly fits the mentality Boylen wants, but it doesn’t do much for the Bulls’ long-term rebuild if Shaq Harrison gets 26 minutes or Portis shoots 18 times.
The Bulls need to see what they have in their core, and right now they’re unable to.
In the short-term, the hair-thin silver lining is that Dunn and Markkanen, still shaking off rust after six and 10 weeks off, respectively, will see their usage rates soar. With volume hog Jabari Parker out of the rotation and LaVine on the sidelines, the two of them will get as much run as they can handle and (hopefully) get them back into a rhythm by the time LaVine returns.
On Wednesday it was Dunn’s turn; he attempted 21 shots, the most he had taken since early December last season. Markkanen had just six attempts but he stands to benefit in the shot and usage department in LaVine's absence. The Bulls will make sure of it.
It’s something LaVine knows well. With Dunn and Markkanen out the majority of the season’s first 30 games, LaVine ranked fourth in usage rate in the same breath as guys like Harden, Embiid, Durant, LeBron and Westbrook.
“You have to command more of the offense,” LaVine said. “Obviously I feel like that can get you back in rhythm because you’re having to do more, you have the ball in your hands more.
“When everybody’s back, everybody has to take a sacrifice with something, whatever it is just for the betterment of the team. And obviously the team’s better with all of us on the court. So I want them to just get their rhythm back. They’re still working on that.”
All that work, regardless of whether it results in wins or losses, will feel incomplete with LaVine out. Dunn and Markkanen will continue to work back from their injuries and they should be full-go when LaVine returns, most likely sometime after the new year.
Right now it's wait-and-see for the Bulls, like it's been much of the post-Butler era. The Bulls know they have individual pieces, but until they mesh together the losses will pile up as high as the Lottery odds. Not a bad problem as far as this coming June is concerned, but at some point they need to show improvement together, and LaVine's left ankle will determine when exactly that happens.