As he returns to the floor, Lauri Markkanen takes his place as most important piece of Bulls rebuild


As he returns to the floor, Lauri Markkanen takes his place as most important piece of Bulls rebuild

Lauri Markkanen is growing up.

Though he just turned 21 years old in May, he couldn’t be more different from the rookie who sat at the Advocate Center podium with Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the Bulls front office on June 27, 2017. Between that time and now the Finnish forward added 16 pounds of muscle, became a father, and most recently took an active stance through his social media channels on the dangers of global warming.

He also suffered his first long-term injury. Markkanen said last week in practice that sitting on the sidelines, as it so often does for injured players, gave him a different perspective on the game and how he’d eventually be able to help when he returned to the court.

In the smaller sense, that time has come. Markkanen is set to make his season debut Saturday night against the Houston Rockets, nine weeks and two days after suffering an elbow sprain on Sept. 28.

In a larger sense, another time has come. The Bulls are only in Year 2 of their rebuild, and their core has still only played 12 games together due to myriad injuries. Pieces will be added, and even more will be subtracted. There’s plenty of time to iron out the details of who will be around when the Bulls are again playing in May, and potentially June.

But at its very core, the fate of the Bulls’ rebuild, whether it succeeds and makes them contenders or has them mired in NBA purgatory, will fall on the shoulders of the 21-year-old Finnish forward.

He won’t be asked to do it alone. He isn’t LeBron James and this roster isn’t the 2006-2007 Cleveland Cavaliers.

Zach LaVine looks to be worth every bit of the four-year, $78 million contract he signed in July and will grow either into the Bulls’ primary scorer or secondary scorer behind Markkanen.

Wendell Carter Jr., who we wrote about in June as being the perfect complement to Markkanen, is entirely capable of being the defensive foundation every competing team needs. Any offense he can add, whether he becomes a rim runner like Clint Capela or is able to create on his own like a Jusuf Nurkic, will be an added bonus.

Questions remain on Kris Dunn – is he a starter or Marcus Smart 2.0? – and Bobby Portis – how much can the Bulls play a backup forward? It’s too early to tell what Chandler Hutchison will provide, but the Bulls have four years of a rookie scale contract to find out.

They’ll also add pieces in the coming drafts. Though they currently own the NBA’s third worst record, getting Markkanen, Dunn and Portis back will push them closer toward the No. 7 spot they’ve been the last two seasons than the top-3. Remember, they won’t be actively tanking like they were a year ago when Cristiano Felicio and Cameron Payne each averaged 23 minutes per game after the All-Star break.

But it’s not suddenly time to start expecting wins and playoff appearances simply because Markkanen is back in the fold. Even when they’re back to full-strength with Dunn and Portis, this is a team ranked dead last in offensive efficiency and whose five wins have come against teams with a combined record of 31-80; none are above .500. Basketball Reference has the Bulls’ 2019 playoff chances at 0.1 percent, and even that seems high.

Remember, the Bulls’ rebuild is exactly where it’s supposed to be 527 days after trading Butler.

Where it goes from here will be in large part up to Markkanen.

He is today’s NBA. Pardon the clichés and basketball buzzwords, but they all fit. The versatility Markkanen will provide for Fred Hoiberg’s (or [insert your future head coach preference here]’s) offense will be unlike any other player’s in the league.

When he takes the floor Saturday in Houston he’ll be the 39th 7-footer to play in a game this season, per Basketball Reference’s database. Just one of those 38 players, Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez, has averaged more than the 2.1 3-pointers Markkanen made as a rookie. Markkanen's numbers will only improve as he continues to progress. In a league that is making and taking more 3-pointers than ever before, the Bulls have one of the most unique shooters in the game. And he’s 21 years old

The 16 pounds of muscle he added – and it was legitimate gain, not just a #MuscleWatch storyline over the summer – should do wonders for his interior game, where he struggled as a rookie playing at 225 pounds. He’s now closer to 240 and the difference is noticeable. And as the famous Al McGuire once said: “The best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores.” The baby face and peach fuzz facial hair appear to be here for the short-term, but from the neck down he's transforming before our eyes.

It’ll take time, but Markkanen will be able to score from anywhere on the floor. He’s that talented and is transforming a body to complement it. That goes for the defensive end, too, where Markkanen was better than advertised in terms of footwork and IQ, but found himself overmatched more often than not. That won’t be the case going forward, and Carter’s presence will only help.

He’ll also have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the roster. We’ve seen the toll LaVine’s numbers have taken being the only real trusted scorer; he’s third in the NBA in usage and shot 39 percent (and 25 percent from deep) in November.

And though Carter was outstanding playing with LaVine in pick and roll action in Friday’s loss to the Pistons, the aforementioned versatility Markkanen will bring will put Carter closer to the basket where he’s most effective as an offensive rebounder. Markkanen makes everyone around him better simply by being on the floor.

It’s asking a lot. There’s no denying that. But such is life in the NBA, where superstars win. Never say never, but the Bulls probably aren’t nabbing a Grade-A free agent in the coming summers. That puts the onus on Markkanen – with LaVine, Carter and whomever else around him – to make the rebuild work.

It’s tough to see the Bulls succeeding if Markkanen isn’t a major – if not the major – part of it.

The good news is Markkanen appears to be on the right track. It may not fully happen this year, and patience will be required, but everything is there for Markkanen to take the reins and lead the Bulls into the next phase of their rebuild.

Bill Wennington remembers Michael Jordan's double-nickel game on 25-year anniversary

Bill Wennington remembers Michael Jordan's double-nickel game on 25-year anniversary

Over 25 years, Bill Wennington has used some variation of the same line. But given the magnitude of the occasion, it still hasn’t grown old.

Do you remember the time Michael Jordan and I combined for 57 points?

Still, with Saturday marking the actual 25-year anniversary of Jordan’s famous 55-point outburst against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in his fifth game back from a 17-month retirement, it was nice of Wennington to offer up something new.

“My line at the time was, ‘What was Patrick Ewing doing leaving me at the basket? It’s not like Michael had 55. Oh, that’s right. He did,’” Wennington joked in a phone conversation.

Yes, 25 years have passed since Jordan’s double-nickel game, the grandest of grand statements that Jordan was back from his minor-league baseball experiment.

“There are some players who are simply unique and transcend every aspect of the game,” Knicks coach Pat Riley said that March 28, 1995 day. “And he’s the only one in the history of the game who has had the impact he has had all the way around.”

Indeed, Wennington recalled Jordan making that impact immediately, even in practices at the old Berto Center in Deerfield, Ill.

“I had heard what it was like through the first three championships were and how practices were. As soon as he came back, all the stories were true. He just raised the intensity level up,” Wennington said. “And the intensity level was already higher than some other teams I had been on because Scottie was carrying on the tradition and keeping things competitive. But when Michael came back, it went up twofold.”

Jordan had scored 19, 21, 27 and 32 points in his first four games back, but shot just 39.3 percent as he tried to find his legs and rhythm after such a long layoff. Plus, his body had been conditioned for baseball.

That’s what made his 55-point explosion on 21-for-37 shooting all the more shocking.

“Seeing him play that well that quickly was pretty amazing. He did whatever he wanted on the floor,” Wennington said. “But he had talked about that game. He wanted to play in the Garden. He liked playing in the Garden. He thought it was a great place to play, especially with the rivalry that had grown between the Bulls and Knicks.”

Wennington laughingly pointed out that he only played because both starter Will Perdue and reserve Luc Longley fouled out trying to stop Patrick Ewing, who scored 36. But the crucial reserve for the second three-peat pointed out he had been in that position before.

“That’s where Phil (Jackson) was so good. He made sure guys understood their roles and how they fit in. So it wasn’t hard to stay ready,” Wennington said. “Not that I thought I’d have to do much with the game that Michael was having. I just knew I had to play my role and get out of the way with proper spacing.”

Which is exactly what Wennington did on the game-winning basket. John Starks fouled out Perdue with 14 seconds left and sank both free throws to tie the game at 111-111. In the ensuing timeout, Jackson reminded Jordan, wearing No. 45, that Ewing had left his man to double-team on the three previous possessions.

“I’d be lying if I said I was coming out to pass the ball,” Jordan said that day. “I was coming out to score.”

Jordan drove on Starks and rose for a shot as Ewing came to contest.

“The play was for Michael obviously to make it happen and win the game. It was just one of those things where we run the play and I'm going out to the weakside down low, and Patrick just leaves me. So I go down by the basket to put myself in a position to either get a rebound or be available for a pass,” Wennington said. “And Michael passed.”

Wennington slammed home Jordan’s second assist of the day, with little fanfare afterward.

“He slapped me on the head, said, ‘Good shot.’ It was a do-your-job type thing,” Wennington said. “That was what Michael was all about. If you talk about guys who played with him and the reputation that he was tough on players. It was really only that he expected you to do your job. If you didn’t do your job or hold your own, you’d hear it. Because he was always focused on winning.

“I don’t think he ever got mad at me for having someone score on me. But if I did something goofy like take my eye off the ball and lose the ball or not be in the right spot at the right time, he’d let you know about it. That to me is an extension of him wanting to win.”

The Magic eliminated the Bulls in the second round of the 1995 playoffs. But Wennington points to the double-nickel game as a harbinger for what was to come. The Bulls set an NBA record by going 72-10 in 1995-96, Jordan’s first full season back, and winning the first title of a second three-peat in the 1990s.

“That game helped us realize that our team could be really good if we got on the same page,” Wennington said. “And the following season, we got on the same page.”

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Bulls observations: Rodman, Wennington and role guys key Game 4 win over Knicks

Bulls observations: Rodman, Wennington and role guys key Game 4 win over Knicks

We got Dennis Rodman inhaling rebounds, 'Winnington' time and an electric Garden atmosphere in Game 4 of Bulls-Knicks. But most importantly, the Bulls seized a 3-1 series lead. Observations:

A night for the unsung heroes

Michael Jordan got in foul trouble early, picking up two personals in the opening minutes and a third before the first half was over. He was the only Bulls starter not to play every minute of the first quarter. To give you an idea of how rare Jordan battling foul trouble is… 


So, yeah, he didn’t foul out of this one. Even in a game that wasn’t his strongest, he led the Bulls with 27 points (though on a paltry 7-for-23 shooting), and tacked on eight rebounds and eight assists in 40 minutes.

But the role players were the story for the Bulls. Ron Harper had a postseason-high 18 points. Randy Brown chipped in a timely eight, Jud Buechler provided a first-half spark with six in the opening two quarters, and the bench, as a whole, shot 64.7 percent from the field — well above the team-wide mark of 40.7 percent. 

Then, it was ‘Winnington’ time in the fourth. Bill scored four points in the final minute-and-a-half — both field goals on setups from Dennis Rodman. The second, a stoic 10-footer from the right baseline, put the Bulls in front for good. 

On a night for unsung heroes, it was awesome to watch Wennington, Rodman and John Salley (let’s not forget Spider’s defense on Ewing on the Knicks’ second-to-last possession) stymie the Knicks’ momentum and pull the Bulls in front. Jordan scored two points in the fourth quarter — on a pair of free throws with 11.2 seconds remaining — and it didn’t matter. The Bulls prevailed 94-91, their slimmest margin of victory in the '96 playoffs.

Dennis Rodman eats rebounds for breakfast, lunch and dinner

To anyone with eyes, the physicality of this series compared to the modern game (and even their first round series against the Heat) stands out prominently. On the glass, the Bulls thrived on that intensity.

Rodman led the way again in this one with 19 rebounds (10 offensive) in a team-high 41 minutes. As mentioned, he slung two late assists to help seal the game. And his 19th rebound, a contested snare off a Ewing floater, gave the Bulls the opportunity to clinch the game with free throws and a final defensive possession. 

On the series, The Worm averaged 15.6 boards per game. He’s awesome.

The Garden was electric

From the jump, the rare energy in Madison Square Garden was apparent, even through the television screen. That swelled as the Knicks got off to a fast start, leading 28-24 after the first quarter and outshooting the Bulls by a wide margin in the first half (at one point, they were 16-for-25 to the Bulls’ 18-for-40).

The organist really set the tone — Sir Duke on loop beats the Power Clap any day.


When the Bulls sputtered through offensive possessions midway through the fourth, the crowd’s crescendo was palpable (the Knicks defended their absolute butts off for a long stretch). A John Starks and-one fastbreak layup to cut their deficit to 86-83 elicited a bonafide roar. Consecutive tough buckets by Patrick Ewing to cap a six-minute, 13-0 run that put the Knicks up three late in the fourth quarter incited pure delirium.

It made the Bulls pulling out the tooth-and-nail victory all the more gratifying, especially when a Starks 3 that would have tied it was waved off for traveling with 1.3 seconds left. But, man, if the Knicks ever get good again, it would be so much fun, and that crowd is evidence. You could say the same for the Bulls. I digress.

Game 5 on Monday on NBC Sports Chicago.

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.