There’s a turning point every rebuild and while it’s impossible to identify in the moment, the current five-week stretch that Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine have put together for the Bulls feels like it just might be theirs.
Ironically enough it came in a seven-point loss to the Charlotte Hornets, but Feb. 2 marked the beginning of what’s maybe the next chapter in the Bulls franchise. On that night, a 125-118 loss in which the Bulls coughed up a nine-point halftime lead, Markkanen poured in 30 points and LaVine, returning from an ankle sprain, pitched in 18 points of his own. Markkanen and LaVine combined to shoot 15 of 25 of 25 from the field and made all 16 free throw attempts, 13 of which came from Markkanen.
It was the first time both Markkanen and LaVine shot better than 50 percent from the field since Jan. 4 against the Pacers, a 15-game span that lasted nearly a month. It wouldn’t be the last time those two filled it up that month. In fact, Markkanen and LaVine topped 50 percent from the field together four more times that month.
The pair were a model of efficiency in February, and they haven’t really slowed down in March either. Including Friday’s loss to the Pistons, since Feb. 1 LaVine is averaging 26.3 points on 51 percent shooting and 44 percent from deep, while Markkanen is averaging 23.5 points on 45.6 percent shooting and better than 90 percent from the free throw line.
Why’s that significant? The only other teammates in the NBA to average 23 points per game since Feb. 1 are Golden State’s Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson and Oklahoma City’s Paul George and Russell Westbrook.
LaVine came out of the gates firing this season, needing to take on an incredible role in the absence of Markkanen (elbow sprain), Kris Dunn (knee sprain) and Bobby Portis (knee sprain). When Markkanen returned there was some timidity on his end including a six-shot night against Brooklyn, and in his first 11 January games he went to free throw line more than three times just once, averaging 2.2 per game.
LaVine’s counting numbers dipped in December as he adjusted to the style and pace that Jim Boylen wanted to play, and in January he shot just 46 percent from the field and below 36 percent from deep, including a 28 percent stretch over the final 10 games.
The inconsistencies resulted in expected losses. The Bulls went 55 days between home wins, were blown out by Atlanta, lost at home to Cleveland and had a West Coast road trip that, albeit a difficult one, resulted in five losses by 94 points.
But then Feb. 2 happened. Four days later the Bulls lost again, but it came on a night in which Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker were dealt 30 minutes before tipoff, leaving the Bulls’ second unit shorthanded (though admittedly they should have beaten the Pelicans).
Otto Porter arrived on Feb. 8 and started hitting every shot he took – he hasn’t slowed down – and LaVine and Markkanen began their tear. They’ve been a remarkable duo, and now they’re finally accomplishing these hot stretches together. The result has been more wins: The Bulls have won seven games since Feb. 1 after winning seven times between Nov. 21 and Jan. 30.
LaVine, Markkanen and Porter – who is averaging 18.5 points with an eFG of 58.5% - have put the Bulls offense into fifth gear. Even with a slow start to March they’ve still got the league’s No. 6 offense. Right below them on that list? The Bucks, Warriors and Raptors.
The Bulls still have holes to fix in this rebuild. But any good rebuild begins with identifying the core. That’s what February – and the first week of March – has done for the Bulls. In the coming months they’ll add a likely top-6 pick as well as both of this year’s rookies back into the mix. They’ve also got plenty of money to play around with in free agency to go after a veteran point guard or begin building a bench in immediate need of a makeover.
But the hardest part is over. Not the only hard part, but the hardest. There’s no longer a debate about whether LaVine or Markkanen will pan out. The debate is now about just how good they can be. The Bulls will continue to build around their defensive shortcomings – drafting Carter last June was the first of many needed steps – but to have two scorers who not only can drop 30 points on any given night, but do that together, could mark the turning point of this post-Jimmy Butler rebuild.
“I just think they’re developing. I think they’re maturing. I think they’re playing harder. I think they’re competing better – not that they weren’t competing but I just think they’re growing in all areas. They’re developing into who we hoped they could be,” Jim Boylen said.
“When we drafted Lauri and when we signed Zach, we were drafting and signing to see who they could be, to hope they become who we think they can be. They’re starting to do that.”