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The Chicago Bulls ‘Big Three’ hasn’t played well together

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LaVine, Dunn, and Markkanen 3-man lineup has been underwhelming, but it’s obviously early

NBA: Chicago Bulls-Press Conference David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

One of the Bulls stated imperatives in this final stretch, beyond losing, is seeing their ‘big’ ‘three’ play together more. Since that change in direction, the Bulls have found that this will take time, as they have struggled to accommodate Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, and Kris Dunn into the same lineup this season.

According to NBA.com, in 131 minutes of playing time together the Bulls have a 95.4 offensive rating (the Bulls have a 101.5 offensive rating on the season) and a 119.7 defensive rating (the Bulls have a 108.5 defensive rating on the season) when those three players share the court. Lineups featuring Markkanen, Dunn, and LaVine have a net rating of -24.3 this season.

Even in the infant stages of their development together, that’s not what you want to see from the Bulls core of the future. Why have they played so poorly together?

Defensively, it’s not hard to figure out why lineups featuring these three players have not worked out. LaVine has a lot of room to grow defensively especially off the ball (the Bulls are eight points better on defense when he isn’t playing), and even Dunn’s notable defensive prowess hasn’t been enough to cover for LaVine’s mistakes.

Markkanen has surprised with his versatility and athleticism on defense, but he has a lot of room to improve as well before he can be considered really good at that end (the Bulls are 2.4 points better defensively when he sits than when he plays).

However, the loss of Robin Lopez for the sake of player development has also hurt those three defensively. In the four games that he’s sat out since the All-Star break, the Bulls have surrendered 112.5 points per game. The Bulls were over 4.5 points better on defense when Lopez prowled the court. He is one of the better rim protectors in the NBA, according to NBA.com players shot 7.6 percent worse than their normal field goal percentage when defended by Lopez on shots within six feet from the rim. He cleaned up these guys mistakes, and now that he isn’t in there anymore it shows in the defensive metrics.

Not having the benefit of playing with Lopez as a defensive anchor, plus playing with a bunch of bad defenders -- Paul Zipser, Cristiano Felicio, Cameron Payne, getting developmental minutes, plus rotation regulars who are bad defensively in Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine -- has probably hurt the Lavine, Dunn, and Markkanen trio on defense this season as well.

Figuring out what’s going on offensively is a bit more tricky. The impulse is to say that LaVine is freezing out his teammates by shooting the ball too much. But that’s not entirely accurate. Indeed, LaVine has hijacked the Bulls offense a bit, averaging 27.5 shot attempts per 48 minutes which is the third highest volume in the NBA among players who have played at least 100 minutes since Jan. 13.

However, Markkanen’s shot attempts haven’t gone down significantly during this time. Since LaVine returned, Markkanen has averaged 19.5 shot attempts per 48 minutes which is virtually the same as the 20.5 shot attempts per 48 minutes he was putting up before LaVine’s return. Dunn’s shot attempts per 48 minutes before and after LaVine returned is also a negligible difference.

The difference for Markkanen isn’t in volume, but that he isn’t making shots since LaVine’s return, going 41.3 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from the 3-point line.

Some of that could be LaVine not getting him the ball in the right spots.

Similarly, Dunn has shot the ball at a 37.4 percent clip from the field and a 19 percent clip from 3-point land since LaVine’s return. Figuring out the Dunn and LaVine dynamic in terms of who runs the plays on offense is tricky. The two have been worth -19 points per 100 possessions when they’ve shared the court together this season. Dunn’s value off the ball offensively is limited because he’s not a great shooter yet, so having LaVine around to dominate the ball mitigates Dunn’s value offensively.

Benching Lopez hurts as well offensively, particularly as a screen-setter and general space-eater for Markkanen, as Stephen Noh chronicled early in the season over at The Athletic.

But chemistry isn’t created in one day and LaVine, Dunn, and Markkanen have an average age of 21.6 years. The 131 minutes they’ve played together is a minuscule sample size and there’s a precedent of really good trios of players struggling to figure it out initially.