When the Bulls’ season ends in a couple weeks, there’s a good chance the biggest question will go unanswered, thus creating an uneasy feeling headed into the summer.
To the fault of no one, it’s possible we’ve seen the last minutes of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn together. Dunn is in a walking boot while LaVine’s knee tendinitis will keep him out for at least another week, and considering the way he’s played or been deployed, there’s not much for him to gain from playing again.
Markkanen could return in the next couple days if his back loosens up, but his greatest value in these final weeks was seeing how he meshed with his two co-stars.
The minutes they’ve played together haven’t provided any clear answers as to a pecking order, or even if there’s any effectiveness.
Yes, Markkanen has been a revelation and has more room to grow than the other two, while Dunn reclaimed his name after being labeled a bust following a disappointing rookie season.
And it’s probably unfair to judge LaVine on anything considering most evidence shows it takes at least 18 months to get back to full health from an ACL surgery. But given the objective of the season, the Bulls will likely walk away with an “incomplete” on their report card—and that’s probably optimistic.
The small sample size has shown moments but those moments have occurred when one was missing from the three. Dunn’s signature stretch was when LaVine had yet to debut, and LaVine’s flashes of control happened when Dunn was out with a concussion.
They’ve only played 12 games together and to the eye, it’s looked disjointed. The mismatch lineups certainly play a part in things looking so scattered, but even a closer look hasn’t shown more than a mixed bag.
According to NBA.com, the 3-man lineup has an offensive rating of 97.5 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 119.2 points per 100 possessions. Even if you’re not into the advanced stats the way some are, it’s hard to ignore the numbers when the eye isn’t giving you much to combat it.
“I don't take too much into it just because of the fact Zach really joined the team full time with not many reps with that group,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Most of his contact practices were with Windy City. I am confident when we get all those guys together, especially this summer headed into training camp, we'll be a lot further ahead of where we were this year.”
Their collective plus-minus is minus-21.8 points and so much of that can be attributed to the trio not creating easy looks for each other. Dunn and Markkanen developed a decent chemistry, especially in December when Nikola Mirotic fueled a surge that saved the Bulls from temporary embarrassment.
“He was playing at such a high level,” Hoiberg said. “You look at his numbers during that stretch when I think we won 10 of 12, and went 15-11 I want to say in that six-week stretch in December and into January, and then unfortunately he had the bad concussion in the fall against Golden State.”
It also probably saved them from a sure-fire top three pick in the draft this summer, as they’ll resort to leaning on lottery luck to obtain a true franchise changer. LaVine was the centerpiece of the trade that delivered the trio to Chicago, and he’s admitted to frustration—which is to be expected given his recovery putting him behind from the start.
“I’ve had some parts where I’ve been frustrated, and I’ve had some parts where I’ve been happy with my play and the team’s play,” LaVine said earlier this week. “But I didn’t have any expectations really coming into it. I was excited to get back on the court and get back out here and playing, stuff like that. It’s been good overall just from the standpoint of me playing, and getting my rhythm back, getting with the team.”
LaVine and Dunn are in a unique situation where it appears both need the ball to be most effective, while also struggling to play without it. Will Dunn develop an outside shot respectable enough to allow LaVine easier driving lanes to the basket? And will LaVine find a way to make himself a threat off the ball to unlock a more deadly Dunn-Markkanen pick-and-roll?
He (Dunn) had a little bit of success, we put the ball in Zach’s hands a lot in that Minnesota game, and put Kris in the left corner where he did hit a couple shots playing off of Zach,” Hoiberg said. “Zach’s a guy that’s going to be a guy that has the ball in his hands quite a bit with the make-up of the team, and Kris has to be a guy that can be a reliable shooter.”
Markkanen will undoubtedly take another step in the offseason, even if he doesn’t play another minute this season. He doesn’t need to, anyways.
The wayward looks on the Bulls faces of their 135-102 drubbing at the hands of the Denver Nuggets said it all. Human nature is kicking in with this bunch, even if some of them have an opportunity to make names for themselves on an individual level.
The collective spirit has taken a few punches but by and large they’ve competed all season and should be commended. Wednesday night could be called an aberration of sorts.
“These guys are getting an unbelievable opportunity right now, to come out and prove they belong in this league, prove they belong in the rotation and prove they belong long-term with the organization,” Hoiberg said. “And we’re just obviously way too inconsistent with it. You can’t take it for granted. You got to go out, you got to fight, you got to scrap, do a lot of the little things. We’re not doing that.”
And even though Hoiberg is right, if everything revolves around Dunn, LaVine and Markkanen, how can the ancillary parts be truly assessed when they’re not out there to play off?
Denzel Valentine’s career night against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers last Saturday would be easier to place into context if he were playing alongside Dunn or LaVine or Markkanen, hitting eight triples by finding the open spots in the defense.
Instead, one could merely write it off as the same type of aberration as a 30-point loss to a Nuggets team desperate to stay in the Western Conference playoff hunt.
“It’s different because personally, I’ve been through a lot of roles: Starting, coming off the bench, back starting without those three guys," Valentine said. "It’s definitely been challenging but at the same time I have to come out and play better. And we can compete a little bit better.”
And even with 11 games remaining, the images produced won’t provide much answers for the true big picture.