During a season-high, five-game losing streak, the Bulls’ defensive rating has slipped from fifth to eighth. That included allowing 123 points in Wednesday’s loss to the Pelicans, the Bulls’ first full game without Wendell Carter Jr.
“Our best defensive player didn’t play [Wednesday] night,” coach Jim Boylen said late Wednesday in New Orleans. “So that makes it hard on us.”
It’s going to be hard for awhile.
An MRI exam on the sprained right ankle that knocked Carter out of Monday’s loss in Dallas to the Mavericks revealed a serious ankle sprain that eliminated a quick return that both Carter and the Bulls initially hoped for. The timeline for Carter, who had started every game until Wednesday, is four-to-six weeks.
Carter’s loss is significant beyond the fact he leads the Bulls with 17 double-doubles. He has arguably been the team’s steadiest presence, averaging 11.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game while shooting 53.7 percent from the field.
Boylen consistently cites Carter’s communication skills and a defensive IQ that belies his tender age of 20 as critical for the aggressive, trapping style that he wants to play. Boylen also has talked about wanting a roster filled with duplicity so that, if someone is injured, he doesn’t have to change his style of play.
But Daniel Gafford, while athletic and mobile, isn’t as advanced as Carter is defensively. He’s more raw, with sublime shotblocking skills, but is a player still learning pick-and-roll coverages.
Thad Young is a savvy defender adept at deflections and rotations. But when he starts, as he did against the Pelicans, that pushes Lauri Markkanen to center.
Thus, Carter’s extended absence could force Boylen to tweak his defensive system.
It also could thaw any ideas the Bulls might have of moving Young in advance of the Feb. 6 trade deadline. That is, if management is still focused on trying to right this spiraling season and not writing it off.
Young has played more since his camp conveyed to management that he didn’t sign a three-year deal as a free agent to play the roughly 18-22 minutes that he had been averaging. That led to speculation that the Bulls might listen to offers for the 13-year veteran. A league source said the Clippers are at least one team that has eyed Young, though they also have designs on larger plans.
Whatever happens, Carter’s injury is the latest blow in a season that began with such promise and has devolved into one of the league’s bigger underachieving stories.
Just last week, Carter had expressed hope to play all 82 games after having his rookie season cut short after 44 games due to thumb surgery. Even in the direct aftermath of the injury, Carter spoke in Dallas about wanting to return after missing only a couple games. He later changed that to no later than the end of this month.
That scenario is still in play. But the Bulls are going to endure some defensive pains until then.
“It’s probably the worst pain I’ve endured playing basketball,” Carter said that night. “While I was laying down on the ground, I’m like, ‘Man, this is the exact time I was hurt last year and it affected a lot of stuff for myself and my team at this point.’ That’s why I want to come back sooner rather than later, so I can help my team.”
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