With 21 games left in the 2019-20 regular season, the clock is ticking on the Bulls to figure out what they have.
A recent comeback win over the Mavericks provided a taste. Otto Porter Jr. returned from a 51-game, 17-week absence to drop 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting in 17 minutes. Coby White continued his hot streak and led all Bulls with 19 points off the bench. Wendell Carter Jr., who is still not 100 percent, upped his minutes total to 23 in his second game back from a high ankle sprain. The Bulls beat a team above .500 for just the second time all year.
Practice on Tuesday afternoon offered another bright spot. Lauri Markkanen, who’s been inching closer to a return, took part in some high-octane offensive and defensive drills and looked uninhibited.
Lauri Markkanen moving well pic.twitter.com/FMjKrLJjL3— Tony Gill (@thetonygill) March 3, 2020
Markkanen spoke to media for the first time since being ruled out with an early stress reaction in his pelvis on Jan. 24.
“I feel pretty good. I’m hoping to play (against Minnesota on Wednesday),” Markkanen said. “Physically, I feel ready to go. From what we did, I was able to do all of it. It sucks to sit out.”
Even on a getaway day before jetting to Minnesota tonight, he was drenched in sweat. He’s ready.
In addition to the early stress reaction, Markkanen battled an ailing ankle in January but said he’s “pretty close” to 100 percent. Head coach Jim Boylen said that if Markkanen is cleared after re-evaluation on Wednesday morning, he’ll play against the Timberwolves. Markkanen said he wants to play every game down the stretch once he’s cleared.
Porter and Carter’s minutes are also set to be raised moving forward.
But in a cruel twist of irony, Zach LaVine will likely remain inactive for the rest of the week. LaVine missed his first game of the season against Dallas after an MRI revealed a strain in his left quad, a dagger in his stated desire to play all 82. He’ll be out again against the Timberwolves on Wednesday.
“It sucks. ’Cause I played through more painful things already this year. It's just that I don't think they were as severe,” LaVine said. “It's just being smart about it and not trying to make it worse than what it is at this time. I'll be out probably about a week and try to figure out what's a good time to come back just to make sure it heals all the way up.”
“I’m excited,” said LaVine of the Bulls slowly getting their players back. “I was upset that everybody's coming back and then you know, I'm exiting stage left… But I know mine isn't a lengthy injury like they had.”
That’s the way of this Bulls season. One in, one out. A silver lining with a touch (or splatter) of grey.
With the playoffs a distant dream, the reality is that this season is no longer about this season. It’s about what comes next. Front office changes are on the horizon, but this team’s roster is largely set in stone moving forward (once Porter officially inks his $28.5 million player option for 2020-21). It’s likely that the most significant addition this offseason will be a top-10 draft selection — another young face on a team already among the youngest in the league. Although, we can’t forget about the impending extension negotiations for Markkanen and LaVine, and a decision on Kris Dunn in restricted free agency.
The only way forward for this rebuild is through internal progression or a severe roster shakeup by way of trade. Either way, the Bulls need as many of their crucial cogs on the floor together as possible down the stretch.
Because as nice a story as Adam Mokoka clamping Luka Doncic in an early-March comeback win is, the core is the key. Can a team constructed around LaVine, Markkanen, Carter and White eventually thrust towards title contention? That’s all that matters. No realistic outcome for this rebuilding season will be wholly satisfying given the expectations it began with, but added clarity on that central question would be better than where we are now.
That’s not to suggest that the Bulls should rush anyone back beyond his comfort or safety. But the urgency to see the core play together is palpable.
Hopefully, we’ll get to see it before the end of the season. A hint of hope entering a summer of reckoning is the biggest thing left to root for.