Bulls

Zach LaVine vows to help Lauri Markkanen's offense get back on track

Zach LaVine vows to help Lauri Markkanen's offense get back on track

Lauri Markkanen has a wicked sense of humor. Trust us. He does.

It’s when the camera lights turn on and the tape recorders start rolling that he slips into a more guarded phase, content to trade in the currency of cliché. Combine that dynamic with his mentality, which is to put the team before himself and never to rock the boat, and you’re not going to get much from the stoic Finn on his current struggles.

That’s where Zach LaVine steps in. LaVine and Markkanen, forever bonded by the Jimmy Butler trade, shoot straight with each other. And according to LaVine, Markkanen remains in a good place mentally, if not statistically.

“He just doesn’t seem in rhythm right now man. It’s a new offense. And I think it has a part to do with it,” LaVine said. “We just gotta help him find it. We’ve all gone through some struggles. I feel like everybody has been off rhythm in the beginning part of the year. I think everybody is shooting a lower field goal percentage than their (career) average.

“His spirits are still high. I know he’s worried about it but he’s not pressing yet. And I think that’s good to see. He hasn’t done anything out of character. He hasn’t lashed out or blamed anybody. He just wants to win. And that’s the type of player he is.”

Markkanen showed the world the type of player he can be last February with dominant double-double after dominant double-double. The organization publicly placed LaVine and Markkanen on a pedestal this offseason, declaring all offseason moves were made to clear the runway for their next steps.

Through 12 games, Markkanen is averaging a career low 14.4 points on career low 37.6 percent shooting and career low 27.8 percent 3-point shooting. His 11.8 shots per game also mark a career low and are well down from last season’s 15.3 per game.

“You can’t blame it all on the offense,” LaVine said. “Sometimes you have to go out there as a player and do what you do as well. That’s at least what I think.”

But what specifically about the offense does LaVine think is limiting Markkanen?

“It’s just different. We’re not getting as many postups. Like we’ve been showing, we’re trying to shoot 3s and get to the basket more,” LaVine said. “For somebody who I think is 7 foot, we just gotta get him some easy ones. Maybe him sometimes standing on the wing waiting for it isn’t the best for him.

“I think in the beginning I was trying to find my way with (the offense). I think it’s a little bit easier for me because I have the ball in my hand and I feel I can create a little better off the dribble and find my own shot. I think we have to help him find his easy shots. I told him, ‘If we’re in transition and you find a small, post up, man. Do what you do. Get in that rhythm. Get to the free throw line.’ I’m still out there trying to help him.

“We just have to do a better job of helping him get to his rhythm and find him. It sucks because you don’t want to see your guy out there struggling, especially you know how good he is and what he can do. He had that great first game. We haven’t been able to get back to it. We gotta find him some easy baskets to help him get in a rhythm. Without him, it’s going to be tough to play.”

Indeed, when Markkanen put up 35 points and 17 rebounds in the opener at Charlotte, flashbacks to February happened. Instead, Markkanen has posted three single-digit scoring games since and has attempted 10 or fewer shots in seven of 12 games.

“I think in general, the league is more prepared for him. I think in general, he's A-1 or A-2 on the scouting report and they're bringing physicality at him every night,” coach Jim Boylen said. “I also think we've demanded that he play better defense and more consistent defense. So being a two-way player at this level is very difficult.

“If you look at some of the matchup he's had, there are some tough matchups in our division, from (Kevin) Love to Giannis (Antetokounmpo) to Blake Griffin and these are all learning things for him. Yeah, we want him to be the Lauri Markkanen he was in February. We believe he can do that. Is he frustrated with that and does he want it? Of course.

“I show him the things he needs to do better. He understands what he needs to do. He's not a dummy. And he cares about the team. When he will break through, how he will break through---I can't tell you that. All I can tell you is he's trying to control the things he can control.”

Boylen has downplayed questions about Markkanen’s shot attempts, saying he’s playing the right way and taking what the game and defense dictate. But is that always a good thing? If Markkanen is a primary scoring option, should Coby White be attempting more shots in less playing time?

“He’s a young developing player. I think he’s had some moments where he can do better. I think he understands that. I think consistency for our group – not only him – has been a problem, and our growth plate for all of us,” Boylen said. “The thing I look at is does he continue to work and communicate and take ownership? I feel no delusional tendencies from him. He’s not making excuses, and as long as I see a guy working and caring, I believe he will play better and get back to who we think he can be.”

Maybe this will all blow over. Perhaps another dominant stretch is imminent. Until then, the questions will remain.

“He hasn’t been frustrated or pressing. He’s like, ‘I gotta get it going,’” LaVine said. “We’ve all missed some easy ones. When you’re in rhythm, those easy ones are automatic. We gotta make that hoop look big to him again. I think he’ll get back on track. He’s in the gym shooting. It’s 12 games in. Luckily, it’s not a 12-game season. But obviously we want to help him get on track faster than anything else.”

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Bulls mailbag: Where do the Bulls go from here?

Bulls mailbag: Where do the Bulls go from here?

The Bulls might lead the league in moral victories. Unfortunately for them, those don’t count in the standings. And so a season that began with playoff aspirations has led to a flooded inbox.

The Bulls have consistently been one of the top teams in attendance across the league, albeit with one of the largest capacities among NBA arenas. With the recent reporting on the dip of attendance at the United Center, do you see this metric getting through to the Reinsdorfs on the current state of the Bulls? Is it a measure being talked about internally that could lead to change? - Hugo M.

I also received a question via Twitter from T.K. asking if Mr. Reinsdorf is “feeling the pressure” from the dipping attendance. Pressure may be overstating matters, but it absolutely is being talked about internally. It has caught the Reinsdorfs’ attention. How could it not? The Bulls have finished first or second in attendance in 16 of the previous 19 seasons. This season also is the third straight they’ve ranked outside the top-10 in capacity, which hadn’t happened since 2003-04. Coincidentally, that’s the first season in which John Paxson had taken over for Jerry Krause, whom most fans thought Reinsdorf would never touch. But five seasons of rebuilding and two straight in which the Bulls ranked ninth and fifth in attendance — and 13th in capacity —  finally led to change.

Will it happen again? Only the Reinsdorfs know. Obviously, if the losing and sagging attendance continues throughout the season, changes would be on the table.

When will the Bulls make a change at head coach and the front office? Will they ride this out the rest of the year or do something midseason? Because they have to do something, right? – Tim G.

This season does feel different because everyone from ownership to management to Jim Boylen publicly stated progress would be made. Playoffs were even publicly set as the goal. And at the very least, competitive basketball was to be expected. At least the Bulls finally are showing signs of that. However, playoffs certainly feel like a longshot.

I’ve heard no talk of in-season changes. The Bulls just tried that last year. And remember: They’re still paying Fred Hoiberg this season, although his $5 million salary is offset by almost half thanks to him landing a job with Nebraska. Boylen is one of the lowest-paid coaches in the league. So if ownership and management concluded after this season that he’s not the right fit anymore, his salary isn’t prohibitive to swallow. But I wouldn’t expect such determinations to come from ownership on management and management on coaching until after the season.

In your sitdown with team president Michael Reinsdorf earlier this year, he stated that he doesn't like the term "GarPax" and that Gar Forman and John Paxson are "individuals" and have "different roles.”  However, his quotes in the article don't really spell out the differences and in fact he says "Gar and John" twice.  Can you help clarify?  I ask because at some point, the Bulls will need to make a coaching change (god bless Jim Boylen and his lame coaching speak, but the writing is on the wall). And I presume at some point, the Reinsdorfs will say to themselves: “We can't let the same people pick a third coach?”  Is the hiring of a coach a Gar decision?  A Pax decision? Somebody actually makes the decisions right?  Constant change (see Knicks) is ridiculous and unproductive, but at some point the fans do need some change, even if it’s for change's sake. Grasping for some kind of hope here, but will they ever get new blood in the front office ever? Or is this it? This can't be it can it? This is probably it. - Nit B.

Your angst, and humor, is palpable.

Also, I’m not sure where you’re getting picking a third coach. This management team has hired five, although Vinny Del Negro was largely seen as an ownership hire after a tortuous process that featured top choices Mike D’Antoni and Doug Collins not working out for various reasons.

The reason Michael referred to them as “Gar and John” is that, while their day-to-day duties are different, all major organizational decisions are made with input from all the top decision-makers. Forman focuses on scouting and talking to agents and other executives throughout the season. Paxson focuses on setting the culture, big-picture items and is around the team more.

For coaching hires, it’s my understanding that the two Reinsdorfs, Forman and Paxson all talk it out and reach a consensus. That said, Hoiberg is largely viewed as endorsed and pushed by Forman, while Boylen had strong support from Paxson and ownership.

You asked a lot of questions but to answer one: Yes, somebody actually makes the decisions. And those largely are reached by debate and discussion and consensus. As for new blood, let’s see how the season concludes. As mentioned above, if this losing and sagging attendance continue, changes have to be on the table.

You’ve been around the block a few times. Where does Boylen rank in terms of hatred from the fanbase? There’s been a few incompetent coaches this franchise has had. - Jay R.

As Louden Wainwright III once sang, “hate is a strong word/I wanna backtrack/the bigger the front/the bigger the back.” But I digress.

It’s always difficult to paint with broad brushstrokes. Yes, I receive plenty of dislike for Boylen via emails or @s on Twitter. I also see some support. At least in my little world, the dislike outweighs the support. But to answer your question, I’m now up to eight head coaches covered, not counting the other Jim Boylan who served as an interim head coach.

Here are your requested (subjective) rankings, from beloved to frustrated: Phil Jackson; Tom Thibodeau; Scott Skiles; Bill Cartwright; Fred Hoiberg; Vinny Del Negro; Jim Boylen; Tim Floyd.

Some brief elaboration: The first three won so they should be self-explanatory. Cartwright was such a decent man and had some leftover goodwill from winning three titles as a player that he ranks ahead of coaches who directed playoff teams. The reason Hoiberg, who had one playoff season, ranks ahead of Del Negro, who had two, is because a lot of the fan feedback I received during Hoiberg’s tenure is that he wasn’t given the proper personnel to fit his style. Boylen and Floyd have lost a lot, so they should be self-explanatory, too.

One last thing about coaching: The NBA is a players league. Coaching is important, obviously. But a lot of success or failure comes down to the rosters. Give Floyd a roster with Michael Jordan and maybe he doesn’t rank so low.

How bad does it have to get for the Bulls to realize they have no chance at making the playoffs? If the realization comes, then what? I don’t see any sort of path forward for this team that involves a title or even competing in the near future. Could they really blow it up again? It seems to be the only way towards a title but I’m thinking that would take the Reinsdorfs clearing house. Unfortunately, it is a bleak future and a long road no matter how you look at.  - Ben V.

This dynamic has my antennae and intrigue up as well, less so for coaching or management changes and more for the roster. If the Bulls don’t right the ship and at least start playing more competitively in the next month, are they active sellers at the February trade deadline? Remember: They traded Jimmy Butler and fully believed at least two of the three players they received in return could approach All-Star status. To this point, that hasn’t happened.

Through a very soft part of the schedule, the team is on pace for 26 wins. There have been no meaningful improvements from our vaunted “core” and from a cap perspective we are basically locked into this roster through the 2021 season when OPJ (he will 100% pick up his option, you can’t convince me otherwise) and Felicio are off the books  Can ownership in good faith really run this front office, coaching staff, and roster out there for 100 more games over the next season and a half? How many front office groups get a chance to rebuild from their own disastrous attempt at a rebuild gone fully off the rails? - A frustrated fan on the edge, Nick, Glen Ellyn

This ties into management’s future and is again a dynamic that has me intrigued. As I’ve reported countless times, the reason ownership has so much faith in this management team is because it watched it flip over a roster inherited from Krause (save for two players) and turn it into the well-liked and perennial playoff teams of Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon. Then, after one disastrous season, management walked into Derrick Rose and had that team on track to compete for titles until Rose’s torn ACL. So whether fans like to hear it or not, ownership believed in management’s ability to construct a competitive roster when starting over. That’s why this season has been so disappointing to this point. And it’s also why, if this disappointment continues, it will be fascinating to see what comes next. After all, ownership, management and Boylen all are on record as saying this season would be different.

With how pathetically thin the Bulls are on the wing, why hasn’t Boylen tried Thad Young there? It seems like he would be quick enough to make it work in spots and Young absolutely needs more minutes than the 21 or so he is averaging per game this season. – Nick P.

Boylen said he and his staff discussed this possibility and that Boylen also talked to Young about it. But it hasn’t happened. Dunn has played well as a starter and Denzel Valentine has revived his rotational role. But Young is playing the second-fewest minutes of his career. And while he knew he didn’t sign here to start because of Markkanen, he also thought he’d be playing more. Young is as professional as they come, but he has shared his desire to play more with several in the organization. He logged a season-high in minutes on Wednesday.

Taking into account the way the Bulls have been playing, and now the news that Otto Porter Jr. is going to be out at least another month, it looks like this season is going to be a total disaster. It’s beginning to look like the Bulls should throw in the towel and try to salvage the season by readying itself for next season. Since we won’t be able to attract any top free agent next year, it seems the next best thing would be to move some of our players who don’t show any signs of being well-balanced players. That includes Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaq Harrison, Kris Dunn and Kornet. Is it possible to trade any or all of those players for an early second-round pick next year? We’d be far better off if we lucked into a player who can make as much of an impact on the game as Daniel Gafford is now doing. I’m not suggesting that we move any of the core, but I’m not necessarily against it if it brought us one true All-Star player next season. Perhaps Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen for a top 10-20 type player. It’s evident that the Bulls will have to make some moves soon to move the franchise in the right direction. The status quo will not work. Especially if management stands behind Boylen. - Rick L

Only Kris Dunn would have any value of the non-core players you mentioned (and as an aside, wasn’t he recently part of the core?). And his value would be minimal. Over the summer, it was even less but he has played well and might be able to bring back a back-end rotation player or a heavily-protected first-round pick. LaVine and Markkanen wouldn’t bring back an All-Star level player.

And therein lies the rub: If Porter opts in, which is likely, this roster almost certainly will look similar next season. The Bulls have little flexibility next offseason. This is why the Bulls banked on LaVine and Markkanen taking big jumps that, to this point, haven’t happened.

It’s been good to see a more aggressive Lauri Markkanen the last few games. How much do you think his struggles have been on him versus the system Boylen wants to play? – Matt A., Australia

Why can’t it be both? I do think Markkanen struggled early with being mostly relegated to a stationary 3-point shooter. He also missed a ton of open looks, which is on him. With the equal opportunity, multi ball-handler system, Markkanen often faded to the shadows. Again, that’s on both him and the system. Then it became somewhat mental for him. To Boylen’s credit, he has used sets designed to get Markkanen on the move more of late and Markkanen has started to respond.

In your last mailbag, you answered two questions to someone who endured being a ballboy during the Ron Mercer days. I am the same age, and I'm hoping I can get a couple questions answered myself because I survived those days as well as a fan---without the benefit of being the ballboy. It feels like those years all over again right now. The roster might be a little better, but records aren't much better between the teams. “Through thick and thin” was the slogan I remember growing up with as a Bulls fan having just missed the Jordan years. So many things that can be asked about the year so far, so I'll stick to just two for now.

It seemed like Boylen might have let it slip about Lauri having an oblique issue. Lauri's well-documented struggles have been one of bigger storylines I feel Bulls have had this year, and Lauri has been able to keep quiet for the most part it seems on his end. His responses in postgame questions from the meeting haven't generated as much buzz as some of LaVine's interviews. Did Boylen let it slip about his injury, or is there something different to how the Bulls are handling injuries this year?

Secondly, what should fans ACTUALLY make from the struggling attendance? Videos/pictures of empty upper bowl are becoming aplenty on Twitter. Social media makes it easy to gather fans ready for a drastic change within the organization, but how can we expect the organization to respond, if at all, to the struggling attendance at home games?– J. Boa

Anyone who remembers THAT slogan gets two questions, although I already answered your second above. I barely remember that slogan and I covered that era.

Markkanen's oblique issue never landed on the injury report. The injury report is a sensitive topic because most every player has some sort or bump or bruise at this point of the season. Do you list everybody and then list them as probable? That's the approach the Bulls seemed to take last game as nine players landed on the report, including most with minor ailments and listed as probable. Markkanen has four 20-point games this month. He's coming around and the oblique talk will be in the background here.

What does the K.C. stand for? Steven R., via Twitter

Kenneth Carl. But you can call me K.C.

Actually, I don’t mind Kenneth Carl and my college basketball teammates call me Kenny Carl. But I’ve been called K.C. my entire life. My parents were hip to the initials from Day One.

As this "improved" roster has scuttled through the light part of the schedule at basically the same winning percentage as last year (8 wins in 25 = .32, 27 of 82 in 2018 = .329), how likely does it seem that the Bulls will actually win less games this year? Mike K., via Twitter

Can they play the Hawks more? That would be something if it happens, particularly after how widely praised their offseason moves were and the public posturing for improvement by the organization. I still think the Bulls are better than their record indicates. I picked them for 36 wins before the season. But, yes, any way you analyze it, this season has been a disappointment.

Thanks for all the questions. Talk to you soon.

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NBA Mock Draft: Will any franchise-changing player be found in 2020?

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USA TODAY

NBA Mock Draft: Will any franchise-changing player be found in 2020?

At this point last year, lottery-bound teams had the consolation of knowing they might have a shot at a transcendent, once in a generation talent.

Duke forward Zion Williamson had already separated himself from the rest of the 2019 draft class with his unparalleled athleticism at 6-foot-7, 285 lbs., looking like a bigger, modern-day version of Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. There was a consensus among NBA talent evaluators that Williamson would be the No. 1 overall pick.

While we wait for Williamson to make his regular season debut with the New Orleans Pelicans, it’s pretty obvious there won’t be a Zion-like talent available for the team that wins the top pick through the 2020 draft lottery.

Through the first month of college games and international league competition, it’s looking like the 2020 NBA Draft lottery will mostly be made up of point guards and wing players. Some of them could wind up being multiple time All-Stars, but it is unlikely that any of them come close to generating the type of buzz created by Williamson a year ago. The only thing we know for sure is you can expect plenty of changes between now and June!

Check out Mark Schanowski's latest 2020 NBA mock draft here!

(Draft order based on standings at the start of games on Dec. 11)