The Bulls play their 53rd game Thursday night. Their projected starting lineup of Tomas Satoransky, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. played just the first nine games of the season together, going 3-6.
Like it or not, that's the main reason the Bulls didn’t make any moves as Thursday’s NBA trade deadline passed.
That’s according to executive vice president John Paxson, who expressed long-term belief in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen, even as he acknowledged the final games the young core plays together — if injuries allow — will be critical for offseason evaluation.
“We weren’t going to be buyers per se. Just given the fact the roster and the way we have it right now and the fact we’ve had kind of a disjointed year with the injuries, we weren’t going to trade Zach, Lauri, Wendell, Coby [White] because we don’t know what we have yet. And we need to see,” Paxson said. “We’ve known that all year long. [General manager] Gar [Forman] was on the phone a lot with teams. We made a deal last trade deadline we were hopeful would help us. Obviously, Otto has had a lot of injuries since he’s been here. The way we are looking at right now, we anticipate that Lauri, Otto and Wendell are going to be back by the end of this month and they can get back on the floor and we can get them playing together a little bit and see where we’re at.”
When the Bulls acquired Porter at last season’s trade deadline, Paxson stated the organizational plan to become relevant between now and the 2021 offseason. That’s when the Bulls project to have maximum salary cap space.
Where do the Bulls stand in that pursuit?
“I said it earlier this year that we haven’t played as well as we all hoped we would. And that was when outside of Otto we still had a fairly healthy roster. Now the injuries have really hit us. We need to get those guys back and play,” Paxson said. “Relevancy will depend on the growth of those guys, in particular Lauri, Wendell, Coby, Chandler [Hutchison]. We’re still in that position. There’s no quick solution to it when you’re trying to develop players. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
LaVine overcame a slow start to play at an All-Star level. Markkanen, out with an early stress reaction to his right pelvis, has struggled and expressed frustration over his usage and role in the offseason.
But Paxson believes in both players.
“Oh absolutely. Absolutely,” he said. “Zach has had a great year. This is the way it should be: Players rewarded for the All-Star game are on teams that were winning. But Zach has had an excellent year.
“From the time we’ve had him, we’ve all seen growth in him and confidence in him. And we put a lot of his shoulders. Zach is a very, very talented player. And from many of the phone calls we got, it’s a common theme around the league. People like Zach.”
Markkanen is averaging career-lows in scoring, rebounding and shooting percentage while barely playing more minutes than his rookie season. Paxson acknowledged the need to work on Markkanen’s usage and role in the offense when he returns from injury but otherwise downplayed talk of Markkanen’s frustration.
“We view him as a cornerstone player. It's our responsibility to help him become the type of player we believe we can be,” Paxson said. “We've had direct communication with him, with his agent. We've never been told Lauri doesn’t want to be here. It's obvious that he's not had the type of year in terms of shot attempts that he's had in the past. We communicate that. Jim and I talk about it. Our staff talks about it, so we don't just ignore those things and we've addressed them with Lauri and his [agent]."
“Our responsibility is to put our players in a position to succeed and get better. And we're going to have an opportunity when Lauri gets healthy.”
Markkanen is eligible for a rookie extension this offseason and the Bulls own his rights through restricted free agency in 2021 if an extension isn’t reached. A source close to Markkanen called talk of Markkanen wanting out “inaccurate.”
Through a team spokesperson, Markkanen declined to meet with reporters pregame. As an injured player, he has that right.
“Lauri had a very good first year, second year. We believe that's the player he is,” Paxson said. “[An extension] is down the road, but we don't have to make those decisions today.”
Paxson acknowledged the team-wide frustration over such a disappointing season.
“We have to keep long-term in mind in terms of our young guys in how they get better and how they develop,” he said. “That's going to be the key to our future.”
Other highlights from Paxson’s media session:
On the market for rumored trade targets like Thaddeus Young and Denzel Valentine: “There were discussions. Denzel’s name came up, but Denzel is still a restricted free agent this offseason as is Kris Dunn. So we still value them. Again, we’ve had so many injuries that we really need to get everybody healthy and see who fits and who doesn’t.
“I don't feel like we're in the business to just give somebody away for nothing, and nothing presented itself [on Young]. That's just the truth. When we signed Thad, we felt his veteran leadership, his play, would be valuable to us. Again, it's been kind of another disjointed year with the injuries, but I think since Lauri's been out you've seen Thad where he can be of value.”
On how Jim Boylen has fared with widespread injuries: “It’s always hard for a coach. I think you guys have been around Jim enough to know that he’s a very positive guy. He keeps trying to grind it out. One thing I do admire is he doesn’t quit on these guys. He looks at them and he believes in them. Hey, in this league, every team faces injuries. We’re not the only ones. That’s why you have a 15-man roster. But Jim handles it very well. He’s trying to coach these guys and try to get them better.”
On the need to have stars and whether LaVine is one: “It's not going to be one guy. It's not just going to be Zach. In this business, you win with stars. Every team does. We went into a rebuild, you draft, you hope those guys develop. We're still trying to get to that phase of being a relevant, legitimate team. We had hopes this year. We did not start off the way we thought we would and should have, and then the injuries hit and we're sitting here where we are and it's not going to get any easier. Hopefully we can get to the break, these three games, and get back. The time after the All-Star break will be us, again, evaluating who fits going forward. But we have not given up on our young guys. A lot of people make mistakes in this league. I know the balance is not hanging on too long, but it's also not giving up on guys too early.
On the plan to have maximum salary cap space in 2021: “That's down the road too. We're going to focus again on the rest of this year. We'll get into the draft and all those type of things when the season ends. You can position yourself for anything, but you never know what the reality is going to be. I don't think we've ever said we're banking on anything in that. What we have said is that we've been trying to put together a very competitive team that you would hope players would want to come play for. Right now we're not where we want to be in that regard and that's an honest answer.”