Preseason either means something, or it’s all worthless.
I doubt many believe in the latter, considering the positives. Not when Zach LaVine has looked so good, and the offense more broadly has finally joined the rest of the league on the cutting edge.
So it’s only fair to also acknowledge what didn’t go to plan: the play of Lauri Markkanen.
Let me preface: I’m not worried about the long-term growth and development of Markkanen, a 22-year-old entering his third season. Nor am I suggesting the outcome of these preseason games will dictate how an entire season may play out for him and the Bulls. This is all likely just a minor glitch, something both player and team will work through over the opening weeks of the season.
But it’s worth mentioning that Markkanen wasn’t good in his four preseason games. While the rest of the roster was offensively cooking, Markkanen only posted 11.3 points on 38.1 percent shooting (33.3 percent from three). Sure, he rebounded the ball well, pulling down 13.1 boards per 36 minutes (plus-3 rebounds over his career per 36 average). But other ancillary stats included just two steals and no blocks.
This overall concern isn’t simply about production, but how Markkanen was used within the Bulls’ offense, and the little interest he showed to aggressively seek out his own score. For some reason, the Bulls to cast one of their foundational franchise pillars as a glorified catch-and-shoot 3-point option.
Of the 42 field goal attempts Markkanen launched in preseason, 24 of those (57 percent) were from behind the 3-point line. Compared to his 3-point rate from his first two seasons in the league, that is a noticeable uplift.
While the distribution of Markkanen’s attempts in preseason swayed more heavily to 3-point attempts, his total field goal attempts dipped below his rookie season. Put another way: Markkanen lost shots to his teammates, and when he did shoot it was often it was a 3-pointer.
It’s not possible from this vantage point to know why Markkanen was more than comfortable floating through these preseason games as an offensive afterthought. Is this solely on solely on player, the coaching staff, his teammates, or some combination? Whatever the cause, the solution needs to see Markkanen gain more attempts and opportunities to explore the rest of his offensive game. That can only happen by focusing him more in action rather than exploiting his shooting stroke as a threat to create space for others.
That use of Markkanen has been an undermentioned byproduct of the Bulls’ quest for a 5-out offensive system. Coach Jim Boylen has emphasised quick decision-making, ball movement, and getting up a lot of threes. Assistant coach Chris Fleming was largely responsible for modelling the Nets offense around their perimeter playmakers.
This means the Bulls are trying to get to the middle of the floor and kick out to shooters, with the ball is firmly in LaVine’s hands as the primary creating option — Tomas Satoransky and Otto Porter Jr. have also been given larger responsibilities in handling and creating in transition. And there is no better catch-and-shoot option on this Bulls roster than Markkanen: floating along the 3-point line as a ploy to attract the defense away from the ball-handler.
This was most prevalent in the Bulls’ final tune up game against the Atlanta Hawks, where six of Markkanen’s eight field goal attempts were threes (he missed all of them).
Again, a small sample, and preseason at that. But it is a marked difference than a similar duration of games: Markkanen’s dominant February last season.
During that February flurry, what was important for Markkanen was that 1) he — along with LaVine — was a focal point of the offense, and 2) he was aggressively creating on-ball, inside and out, for himself and others. That opportunity and volume is what’s been missing since then. The Bulls need to get back to that.
It may not seem important now, especially if overall offensive efficiency transfers into the regular season. But this is still a rebuilding team, and it needs a full exploration of Markkanen’s offensive potential. With a possible contract extension after season’s end, the Bulls need to know what they have in Markkanen: an expanded role which prioritises his entire skillset, or just his long distance shooting.