Lauri Markkanen badly wanted to play all 82 games this season.
He stated that goal publicly at last September’s media day. He told many people privately how much it would mean to him after missing a combined 44 games over his first two seasons. It’s a big reason why he played through oblique and left ankle issues this season.
With everything else crumbling around him — the Bulls’ playoff chances, his All-Star chances — it represented a noble pursuit that could help the franchise.
That goal came crashing down with Friday’s bombshell news that Markkanen will miss four to six weeks after an MRI exam revealed an early stress reaction of his right pelvis.
This latest injury falls on top of promising rookie Daniel Gafford sitting with a dislocated right thumb, Wendell Carter Jr. still weeks away from returning after a severely sprained right ankle and Otto Porter Jr. not playing since Nov. 6 with a foot fracture.
There are so many ramifications to Markkanen’s latest setback that it’s hard to know where to begin. But this is a start: Since management plunged into a full rebuild with the June 2017 trade of Jimmy Butler, Markkanen and Zach LaVine have played just 106 of 210 games together, as of this writing.
Extrapolating the missed games angle further, LaVine, Carter, Porter and Markkanen have played just nine of 74 games together since the Bulls acquired Porter via trade last February.
To be clear: This is no way to judge a rebuild.
Thad Young will start at power forward in Markkanen’s absence. Forgotten man Denzel Valentine could rejoin the rotation.
But make no mistake: Even with Porter hoping to play after the All-Star break and Markkanen hopeful to return after missing 10 to 17 games, this is a massive setback. It further clouds how to judge the core pieces the Bulls counted on to return them to relevancy as soon as this season.
Players will return out of rhythm and out of sync. There is limited practice time down the stretch of the season, particularly when the Bulls’ brutal close to the schedule is considered. It may not even really matter what the Bulls do in the short-term — how the rotation shakes out, how much LaVine can still carry the offense — because this season is headed to lost cause status.
The Bulls absolutely need to still listen to any trade interest involving Young, even though his role will increase. He’s a valuable piece, added to bring leadership, durability, solid play and veteran savvy to help the current core.
But he won’t be here in three years if Markkanen and LaVine reach the ceilings the Bulls need them to for this rebuild to work.
"We take this opportunity to develop our roster," coach Jim Boylen said. "Some next man has to step up. We keep trying to play hard and play the right way. This happens in our league. It's part of the business."
Boylen wouldn't bite on long-term ramifications for the state of the rebuild. He said he wouldn't "go there" when asked if this season is another lost opportunity.
"We're building something. I want our defense to be good, I want our shot profile to be what it is — very good," Boylen said. "I want us to improve our defensive rebounding and defend without fouling. I'm not deterred one bit. I'm disappointed for him. But I'm not deterred in the least bit. As painful as it is, this is an opportunity for somebody else to establish themself. I like that part of the league.
"I'd be dishonest if I didn't say it's frustrating, for all of us. For John [Paxson], for Jerry and Michael [Reinsdorf], it's frustrating. But it's spilled milk, man. We gotta move on and make the guys we can better and hope the guys get back soon. We're not going to wallow in this. We have to move forward. And we will."
Markkanen, whose ankle also will get a chance to heal, vowed to return stronger. But another ramification to the injury: This makes Markkanen's looming negotiations for an extension of his rookie contract this summer even more difficult. He remains under Bulls' rights even if one isn't reached.
"I really wanted to play," he said. "But at the same time, I had to take a step back and think what's actually smart. I think they made a good decision. I agree it could get worse."
Markkanen was speaking about his situation, not the rebuild. We think.
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