As frustrating as this season has been for Bulls' fans, at least we're finally seeing signs of a foundation being built for future playoff teams.
The acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. gives the Bulls four solid starters in place for at least the next couple of seasons, with the chance to add another top player in the draft and one or two veteran back-ups in free agency. The most important decision of the off-season will come at the point guard position, where Kris Dunn enters the final year of his rookie deal likely facing competition for his starting spot.
As we all know, building winning teams in the NBA is about finding stars. It's almost impossible to compete for championships without 2 or 3 elite players in your lineup. When the Bulls traded a top 15 player away in Jimmy Butler back in June of 2017, they were hoping at least one of the players they got back would turn out to be a star, and it looks like 2nd year forward Lauri Markkanen is ready to make that jump.
Since the calendar flipped to February, Markkanen has been playing more assertively on the offensive end than we've ever seen before. He's averaging 26.4 points and 12.4 rebounds with 18.3 field goal attempts per game. Those numbers would easily earn him a spot on the All-Star team for next year's game in Chicago.
But it's not just the numbers alone that are impressive about Markkanen.
Ever since a visit from his long-time coach in Finland during the Bulls' extended western road trip, Markkanen has taken the court with a completely different mentality. Instead of drifting out to the 3-point line and waiting for the ball to come to him, the 7-foot power forward has put some power in his game, repeatedly attacking the rim to score over smaller defenders and more than double his trips to the free throw line.
Just how good can Markkanen be? With his size, agility and shooting range, there's no reason why Markkanen can't average 20 points and 10 rebounds over an entire season. Plus, with his newfound aggressive scoring mentality, that number could edge up to the 23-to-25 point range.
Markkanen has been compared frequently to the best international player the NBA has ever seen, Dirk Nowitzki. While it's unfair to expect anyone to replicate the career Nowitzki has enjoyed, Markkanen's skill-set at 21 years old compares favorably to a young Dirk, and there's no reason why Bulls' fans shouldn't expect to see his game expand considerably in seasons to come.
Could Markkanen become a top 10 player? That projection is still a ways off with talented forwards like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George still going strong, along with young big men Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns. Still, there's no reason to believe Markkanen can't be a top 20 talent over the next decade.
Just as encouraging for the Bulls' future is the growing chemistry between Markkanen and Zach LaVine. Those two players posted career high scoring totals in an unlikely win over Boston last weekend, LaVine going for 42 points with Markkanen adding 35 points and 15 rebounds. The last time a Bulls' duo scored 35 or more in the same game was in 1996, when Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen lit up the Phoenix Suns.
No one is predicting LaVine and Markkanen will become the next Jordan and Pippen, but having a dynamic scoring duo emerge is a template for future success. LaVine told reporters after beating the Celtics that fans should expect more games like that from the two young stars. And, that's an exciting prospect for a team and a fan base that has endured so much losing over the last two seasons.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
Problems continue in Lakerland, where the failed power play to land Anthony Davis before the trade deadline seems to have created a rift between LeBron and some of the young players who were rumored to be heading to New Orleans in the deal. James has been in damage-control mode ever since, and told reporters he was going to activate the "playoff-mode" LeBron earlier than usual to make sure the Lakers would qualify for the playoffs.
L.A. came out of the All-Star break by rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat the Rockets, but followed that up with inexplicable losses to the Pelicans and Grizzlies. Even worse, James was caught on camera loafing on the defensive end during the loss to Memphis, then questioned the commitment of his younger teammates in the locker room after the game.
Just last week in this column, I wrote it's never a good idea to bet against James carrying a team beyond expectations, but the Lakers are starting to look like a group that can't wait for the season to end. L.A. faces one of the league's toughest schedules over the final six weeks, so unless James finds the fountain of youth and also repairs the relationship with his younger teammates, he could wind up missing the playoffs for the first time since his 2nd season in the league with Cleveland.
The NBA's other signature franchise is also dealing with chemistry issues right now. The Celtics looked flat in a 10-point loss to the Bulls at the United Center last weekend, and once again Kyrie Irving made matters worse with some odd comments to reporters afterwards.
Irving said he still thinks the other Eastern conference contenders won't be able to beat Boston in a 7 game playoff series, and when pressed for a reason, he blurted out "because I'm here."
Sure, Irving is an elite talent, one of the best point guards in the NBA. But the Celtics made it to Game 7 of the conference finals last season without Irving or injured teammate Gordon Hayward, and some of the younger guys who played major roles in that postseason run are chafing at being relegated to diminished roles.
Brad Stevens is considered one of the NBA's brightest coaches, but he still hasn't found the best rotation to take advantage of all the talent on his roster. The Celtics still could figure it out when the playoffs start in April, but finishing 4th or 5th in the East will mean a 2nd round series against the Bucks or Raptors, and right now Boston looks like a decided underdog against either one of those teams.
The Bulls will play a home-and-home series against the Atlanta Hawks at the end of the week, and in case you haven't noticed, Trae Young is silencing all the critics who were blasting him after a slow start to his rookie season.
Young is averaging 22.2 points and 9.2 assists during the month of February, continuing a steady rise in production during his 1st year as a pro. So far, his playmaking has been even more impressive than his long range shooting, featuring an innate ability to find teammates with pinpoint, no-look passes.
Would the Hawks like a re-do on the draft night trade that sent Luka Doncic to Dallas for Young and 1st round pick in the 2019 draft? Probably, considering how good Doncic is playing as a rookie.
But that shouldn't be read as an indictment on Young, who is proving he can be an impact player at the pro level, despite his lack of size. Plus, the trade with the Mavericks will most likely give the rebuilding Hawks two top 10 picks in the upcoming draft.
The Bulls brought Young in for a workout before the 2018 draft, and you can bet they would love to have the former Oklahoma All-American running their offense now, especially since he would add the long-range shooting ability they're currently lacking at that position.
Looking at the long-term roster construction, the Bulls are thrilled to have a young rim protector with intriguing offensive potential like Wendell Carter Jr. in place, but after watching Doncic and Young both go off the board in the top 5 picks last summer, they've been scouting the point guard pool led by Ja Morant and Darius Garland very thoroughly during the current college season.
Don’t forget, the Bulls also have an early 2nd round pick acquired in the Justin Holiday trade with Memphis, which could bring other point guard options into play like Duke’s Tre Jones, North Carolina’s Coby White, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, Marquette’s Markus Howard, Virginia’s Ty Jerome and Boston College’s Ky Bowman.
It’s possible the Bulls will draft a point guard and also bring in a veteran to compete with Dunn when training camp opens in late September.