Bulls' trio puts it all together on a promising night for the rebuild

Bulls' trio puts it all together on a promising night for the rebuild

John Paxson spoke to the media before Friday’s tilt against the Pacers and said that as Year 2 of the rebuild went on, he and the rest of the front office needed to see continued growth from their core, specifically the trio of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. As it so happened, a couple hours after Paxson spoke the Bulls’ young core posted their best game together, got timely and important contributions across the board and went toe-to-toe with the league’s hottest team.

The difference was a Victor Oladipo banked 3-pointer with 0.3 seconds remaining that ultimately gave Indiana their 13th victory in their last 15 tries. But in a season that will be judged on growth and chemistry, and in a season where losses ultimately help in the long run, Friday night was just about a perfect one in Chicago.

Kris Dunn posted a career-high 17 assists and had total command of the offense, Zach LaVine added 31 points and nearly sent the game to a second overtime with a circus shot, and Lauri Markkanen finished with 29 points and nine rebounds. The Bulls’ Big 3 were at their very best, and for the first time did it all on the same night.

“I think there’s been multiple games where we kind of had it,” Dunn said after the game, “but this is a game where all three played at a high level.”

The most promising aspect of the trio’s performance was that none of it seemed forced. It helped that the Bulls were making everything, shooting 51 percent as a team against one of the best defenses in the league. But LaVine and Markkanen nearly matched each other in shots (LaVine took 21 shots to Markkanen’s 20, and both had nine 3-point attempts).

LaVine got hot early, scoring 17 first-quarter points but played only a minute in the second quarter after picking up a third foul. So Markkanen took over, scoring nine points on 4 of 6 shooting that helped the Bulls maintain a first half lead. All the while Dunn continued to distribute, racking up 11 assists through three quarters to five different players.

LaVine took five of the Bulls’ final seven attempts in the fourth quarter, including the final two 3-pointers that sent the game to overtime. Before that it was Dunn who connected on the first triple that cut the deficit to three with 26.3 seconds left.

In overtime it was Markkanen who took over, attempting five of the Bulls’ nine attempts and scoring seven of their 11 points. Dunn got his in overtime, too, finishing on a thundering dunk over Myles Turner with 1:12 to play to put the Bulls up three with 1:12 to play. That came one possession after a LaVine jumper, his only make of the extra period.

It was chemistry at its finest. Dunn finished 6 of 9 from the field and had just two turnovers in 40 minutes; he attacked when he needed to attack, and he found the Bulls’ two best scorers when they needed the ball. Markkanen and LaVine also added five assists and didn’t force too many looks.

“I think everybody had their moments when they were feeling hot and making shots,” Markkanen said. “I think we found the right guys at the right time tonight and just tried to play unselfish and make plays.”

The trio won’t combine for 74 points on 29 of 50 shooting every night, but that kind of energy and flow all three played with can become a constant. The Bulls are banking on it. Even Wendell Carter Jr. got in on the action, quietly finishing with 15 points and eight rebounds against a difficult Pacers frontcourt.

Chandler Hutchison saw the floor with those four players for the first time, signaling a sort of new chapter for a Bulls franchise looking to see what it has in their young group before another important offseason.

“We’re dangerous because we have so many weapons out there. We just have to learn how to put it all together. That’s the main thing,” LaVine said. “It’s tough, too, because chemistry doesn’t come in a day, learning how to win doesn’t come in a day.

“There’s gonna be ups and downs, we’re just trying to speed that process up because we know how good we can be.”

Add Wendell Carter to list of unknowns that define the 2019 Bulls


Add Wendell Carter to list of unknowns that define the 2019 Bulls

The 2018-19 season was supposed to begin bringing answers to the Bulls’ rebuild. A healthy offseason for Zach LaVine, head coaching stability for Kris Dunn and a gym membership that Lauri Markkanen clearly made the most of was the lead-up to expectations of progress – if not a few more wins – in Year 2 since dealing Jimmy Butler on the night of the 2017 NBA Draft.

It was also the unwrapping of rookie Wendell Carter Jr. The Bulls selected the Duke center as a high-floor prospect, someone who could help complement Markkanen’s shortcomings, fill an immediate need and provide an anchor to a Bulls defense that had ranked 28th in efficiency the previous season.

Four months after a promising offseason the Bulls are 10-35, the second worst record in the NBA behind the post-LeBron-depleted, Kevin Love-less Cavaliers. Even the most ardent supporters of tanking must be at least somewhat concerned that the team has shown little growth under both Fred Hoiberg and, more recently, Jim Boylen. The Bulls really don’t know what they have outside of a volume scorer in Zach LaVine, a uniquely built Lauri Markkanen and a plus defender in Dunn.

And after news broke Friday, that Carter will miss the next 8 to 12 weeks – and presumably the rest of the season – after undergoing surgery on a sprained thumb, he can be added to the list of unknowns that is defining a lost season.

Carter had his bright spots to be sure – he finishes his rookie campaign averaging 7.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks – and despite his smaller build for an NBA center, proved he can anchor a unit. It’s unfair to dig in to his numbers too much considering he spent the majority of his minutes alongside Bobby Portis, Markkanen and Jabari Parker, who aren’t exactly Serge Ibaka replicas. The Bulls’ defensive efficiency was almost identical when Carter was on the floor (115.7) as it was when he was off it (115.6).

He was a fearless shot blocker – ask Russell Westbrook – with exceptional footwork for a 7-footer (and 19-year-old) who didn’t back down in a starting role while facing Joel Embiid, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan in the first week of his NBA career (he also faced Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic in the preseason).

He was an above-average pick-and-roll scorer, showing off some chemistry with Zach LaVine the last few weeks that was clearly built up in the early part of the season when LaVine was a usage monster and Carter was being asked to be a second or third scorer.

That was the good. Carter also had a serious fouling problem, tied for fifth in the NBA in personal fouls per game (3.5) despite playing just 25.5 minutes a night. Those numbers had thankfully dropped off some in January, as he averaged only 2.6 fouls per game after averaging 3.8 in 29 games over November and December.

He had his offensive limitations but was working through them. Though he was featured less as a distributor out of the high post once Boylen took over, Carter showed a soft touch around the rim, averaging a team-best 66 percent from shots inside 5 feet; to put that number in perspective, Deandre Ayton and Jaren Jackson Jr. were at 71 and 70 percent, respectively.

The 3-point shot we believed would be part of his game never came to fruition. He was asked to do more offensively under Hoiberg because of the injuries, but he still averaged twice the 3-point attempts (1.0) as he has under Boylen (0.4). Then again, he connected on just 18.8 percent of his 32 triples.

That’s where the final 37 games really would have helped Carter. Boylen has shown some open-mindedness toward pushing pace and allowing his young core full of athletes to play at the style they’re most comfortable in. Carter would have been part of that.

There’s also been plenty of discussion about the time Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn have spent together on the court. Their net rating is a ghastly -20.3, no real leader has taken over among the three and there has been little progress as a collective group.

But Carter is part of that, too. It’s easy to lump the three together because they were the return for Butler in 2016, but the Duke product is just as much of the core as Markkanen and LaVine are. This was a critical period for Carter to play in pick-and-roll action with Dunn, and learn defensive tendencies playing alongside Markkanen. Instead, Carter finishes his rookie campaign playing just 312 minutes with Dunn and Markkanen on the court together.

It’s tough to truly give Carter’s rookie season a grade. Markkanen set the bar high for expectations from the No. 7 pick, and Carter gave us a handful of “wow” moments. There’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to progress and turn into the center of the future. He wasn’t going to post the raw numbers Markkanen did, and while the Bulls expect big things from him he was clearly low on the seniority totem pole behind LaVine, Markkanen and Dunn.

Now, like so many of the Bulls’ key figures in this rebuild, we’ll wait and see what happens. Even if Carter does return at the tail end of the season to give him some momentum, it won’t make up for the 12 weeks he’ll miss – both in game action and in practice. His rookie season ends as an unknown, much like it’s been in every facet of the Bulls’ season.


Wendell Carter Jr. could be out 8-to-12 weeks after surgery

Wendell Carter Jr. could be out 8-to-12 weeks after surgery

In the first part of the season, the Bulls were overwhelmed with injuries. It now appears the team has been dealt a massive injury blow.

Rookie center Wendell Carter Jr.'s left thumb injury is severe enough that surgery is recommended for Carter. If he has surgery, the Bulls said in a press release he is expected to miss 8-to-12 weeks.

Carter suffered the injury Tuesday at the Lakers. An MRI on Wednesday showed a sprain and further tests from team specialists resulted in the recommendation.

If Carter is out for 12 weeks, he could miss the rest of the season. The 19-year-old has been a bright spot for the Bulls this season, averaging 10.3 points and 7 rebounds per game while shooting 48.5 percent from the field.

Carter losing development time in a season where the Bulls are primarily focusing on trying to develop their young core is a blow to a rebuilding effort. The Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson said Carter could still opt out of surgery and try to play through the injury.

Johnson followed up with a source saying surgery is "almost certainly" the plan.

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