Bulls

Opportunities arise in backcourt for injury-riddled Bulls

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USA TODAY

Opportunities arise in backcourt for injury-riddled Bulls

It’s that time of the year again for the Bulls. Though last season’s shutdowns were a thinly veiled attempt to increase their chances at a top-3 pick, this time around injuries to key players have the Bulls taking an overly cautious approach as their campaign winds down.

The Bulls, already without rookies Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison for the rest of the season, will be without Otto Porter Jr. and Zach LaVine on Tuesday against the Raptors. Point guard Kris Dunn, dealing with back soreness, is listed as doubtful and is unlikely to play.

That’s three missing starters – four if you include Carter – against a 51-23 Raptors team. So while a loss is almost certainly on the docket that hardly means there’s nothing to be gained from these final eight games.

“Next man up is the focus,” Lauri Markkanen said Monday. “We’re trying to compete and win a couple games here down the stretch. It’s an opportunity for other guys who don’t get to play as much.”

There are a handful of Bulls reserves who will be fighting for a roster spot next season. If we’re to assume that the sure bets – pending any trades – of the Bulls roster will be LaVine, Markkanen, Carter, Porter, Dunn, Hutchison, Denzel Valentine and Cristiano Felicio, plus the Bulls’ first and second round picks, that leaves just three or four openings if the Bulls don’t add anyone in free agency, which seems unlikely.

So with only a few roster spots available next season, and plenty of playing time available this season, the eight-game audition begins Tuesday in Toronto.

The two most important players of these evaluations will likely start in the backcourt. Shaq Harrison will continue to start on the wing while Ryan Arcidiacono will start if Dunn is unable to go. Jim Boylen said he’s undecided on who will start at small forward and likely match up with All-Star Kawhi Leonard, but one of Wayne Selden or Antonio Blakeney would get the call, with Harrison moving to Leonard if the latter started.

“With every injury, there’s an opportunity for someone to step into that role,” Boylen said. “We’ve had guys do that pretty well this year.”

Arcidiacono has been one of the most pleasant surprises this season. He had a serious lull in December and January but has rebounded nicely as the season nears an end, shooting 52 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the arc since the All-Star break.

Meanwhile Harrison has averaged a cool 10.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals in nearly 37 minutes over his last three games, all starts. He’s provided outstanding effort on the defensive end and has seen his offensive game improve; just how much that improvement can be sustained over a long stretch will determine his NBA future, but he should get that chance if one or both of LaVine and Porter are shut down.

While Blakeney’s contract is guaranteed for next season, he’s got work to do. He’s shooting just 42 percent from the field this season and is averaging just 0.6 assists per game. After a red-hot start from beyond the arc in October and November (44.8 percent on 2.6 attempts) he’s made just 36 percent since Christmas Day. But the opportunity is there for him to get extended run, as he’s averaged 22.5 minutes over his last three games, the last two of which were his first career starts.

While those players showcase their talents in the backcourt, the injuries could also allow Lauri Markkanen to take the reins and own the final two weeks. Though it's been a roller coaster of a season, the second year forward appears to be closing on a high note. He's averaging 18.9 points and 9.0 rebounds in 32.7 minutes and could see his numbers across the board improve as he takes on a high-usage role down the stretch with LaVine and Porter out.

"I’m doing the same things, trying to play the right way," Markkanen said. "I know there are guys who don’t normally start and I talked about it with Coach (Boylen) about making the right decision, maybe slow the pace down. At the same time, try to stay aggressive with guys being out."

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Markkanen held scoreless in 2nd half in loss vs Sixers

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NBC SPORTS CHICAGO

Bulls Outsiders Podcast: Markkanen held scoreless in 2nd half in loss vs Sixers

On this edition of the Bulls Outsiders podcast, Matt Peck, John Sabine, and David Watson react to the Bulls 100-89 loss to Philadelphia.

1:00 - On Lauri Markkanen going scoreless in the second half

3:50 - Viewer comment on Lauri needs to be traded

6:10 - On Kornet vs Markkanen’s production

6:55 - On Zach LaVine and 0 for 7 from three

10:05 - Viewer comment on Markkanen struggling

11:25 - Viewer comment wanting Joakim Noah back

13:00 - Viewer comment saying Lauri needs to demand the ball

15:45 - Viewer comment on Sabine’s outfit

16:50 - On the national perspective of this Bulls team

19:05 - Matt Peck rant on Denzel Valentine getting another DNP

21:00 - More viewer comments on Sabine’s outfit

22:05 - Viewer comment on the system and Markkanen

23:30 - Lauri tweets the correct way to pronounce his name

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

For the Bulls' rebuild to succeed, Lauri Markkanen must produce consistently

For the Bulls' rebuild to succeed, Lauri Markkanen must produce consistently

PHILADELPHIA — Above all else, Lauri Markkanen is a team-first player.

The Bulls need Lauri Markkanen to produce more.

Markkanen doesn’t like to force shots.

The Bulls need the third-year forward to shoot more.

Therein lies the at times contradictory dynamic that is helping sink the Bulls’ season. That’s not overdramatizing matters either, which is why this issue has been written about often this season—and again Friday night after the Bulls dropped to 1-17 against winning teams following their 100-89 loss to the 76ers.

At halftime, all seemed well. The Bulls took advantage of a 76ers team playing without Joel Embiid to lead by one with Markkanen scoring 12 points on seven shots.

In the second half, the 76ers ran away and hid with Furkan Korkmaz scoring a career-high 24 points, double Markkanen’s output.

Yes, the player the Bulls anointed as one ready for a breakout season failed to score in the second half. Worse, he took just two shots. Luke Kornet attempted more shots than Markkanen in the game.

“I know I can probably attack the rim a little bit more often and be more aggressive and obviously try to get to my spots. But I didn’t feel that I had the opportunities where I could really attack the closeout. So I just tried to play the system and find the open man,” Markkanen said. “I probably have to be [more selfish]. Obviously, I have to get the ball and get to those spots I can take those shots. I’m a team-first guy. So I’m going to do whatever we need to do. But obviously a big part of it is me playing at my own level.

“I got a couple looks in the second half that I could’ve probably launched. But they were deep 3s. And without touching the ball for 5 minutes, I didn’t feel like shooting at that point. It was pretty contested. So I just moved the ball.”

There’s so much to parse from this quote that it may take 10 minutes, 38 seconds to break it all down.

That’s the amount of time Markkanen sat from exiting with 5:29 left in the first quarter—after throwing down two dunks—until returning in the second. He promptly added another dunk and a 3-pointer.

“Obviously the first time you touch the basketball feels a little different after that period of [rest] time,” Markkanen said. “But other than that, I don’t think it affects me. I’m still young. I’m pretty warm even after that kind of stretch. I don’t really feel it.”

When Markkanen averaged 26 points and 12.2 points in 11 February games last season, he averaged 36.3 minutes and took 18.1 shots. He's averaging 30 minutes this season on 12 shots per game.

He attempted 12.7 shots per game his rookie season. To clarify: Kornet taking more shots than Markkanen in a game and Markkanen attempting fewer shots than his rookie season are not good developments.

“We do have to get him going more. Some of it is on him. Some of it is on me,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I just want him to be aggressive. He handles the ball in transition. He rebounds the ball. Offensive rebounds, he had a couple opportunities there. He slashed to the basket in the first half and got a couple great dunks and plays. Gotta keep your energy up and we have to get him involved.

“I just think it’s a learning and growing thing. There have been times he has been very aggressive and he has got himself involved. There are times where I have to get him involved.”

Part of that, obviously, would be playing Markkanen more. He logged 28:48 against the 76ers.

“That’s what it’s been my whole career, right?” Markkanen asked reporters.

Told that he averaged 32.2 minutes last season, including that even busier February stretch, Markkanen alluded to the need to get Thad Young playing time.

“Thad is a key player for us,” Markkanen said.

But this was sold as Markkanen’s breakout season. When the Bulls signed Young in free agency, management and Boylen publicly painted the move as a complementary one to benefit Markkanen.

Instead, the same storyline keeps repeating itself.

It’s not Markkanen’s rolled left ankle. He was able to joke about getting dunked on by Ben Simmons when asked about it.

“I can tell I rolled it a week or so ago. But it’s definitely getting better,” he said. “I still don’t have too much pop on it. But the pain is going away. That’s probably why I got dunked on.”

Markkanen said he feels he has a strong enough relationship with Boylen to ask him to play more if he needed to. But, again, he’s a team-first guy and knows Young is a valuable piece.

“He goes with how the game is going and who is rolling and who is on the floor from there. That’s his decision,” Markkanen said of Boylen determining playing time. “I’m ready whenever my name is called.

“I feel like we have a good relationship. I don’t mind talking to him. We have conversations pretty often. We haven’t talked about [playing time] too much because we know the situation and that’s the way we’re going to run.”

The situation is Markkanen needs to produce more if the Bulls’ rebuild is going to succeed. It’s as simple as that.

“I’ve had my good moments. I think I’m getting my rhythm back on my shots. Obviously, I can be more aggressive,” Markkanen said. “It’s a different system that we’re running and different kind of spots that my shots are coming from. So it’s a little different. But obviously, I can do more.”

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