More than anything else, this was meant to be a season of development. For the most part, it was anything but.
Something changed this month.
It may only be a 10 game sample, but February gave us a glimpse into the potential 1-2 combination the Bulls may have in Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine. This was emphasised in a nice 109-107 win against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Bulls’ fourth victory in seven starts.
As a microcosm into what we’ve seen all month, the Grizzlies had little hope of stopping an improving Markkanen, who casually finished the game with 22 points and 10 rebounds.
As impressive as a fourth consecutive double-double may have been, Markkanen seemingly flashing new elements in his game is more significant than the box score numbers.
Virtually overnight, Markkanen has morphed from a player who rarely created much of anything for others, to now making sweeping lefty passes on the move that hit his teammates perfectly in their shooting pocket.
Yeah, ok, Lauri. The 7-footer is clearly feeling himself, so much so that he’s initiating pick-and-roll and taking the ball to the rim. Not that this is necessarily a new wrinkle — then-coach Fred Hoiberg experimented with Markkanen as the ball-handler in 4-5 pick-and-rolls with Robin Lopez during his rookie season. This, though, is new.
Look who’s setting the screen for Markkanen. It wasn’t Lopez. It wasn’t another big. No, it was the smallest player on the Bulls roster, Ryan Arcidiacono. It’s one thing to run pick-and-roll with two bigs, where Markkanen presumably can force a switch onto a center and beat them off the bounce. In running a 1-5 pick-and-roll, however, Markkanen is essentially begging the defense to switch a nimble guard on him, as occurred here with Delon Wright.
Markkanen still cooked him, using his improved handles to creates get to the rim, then his length to power over the top.
The grab and go off the rebound isn’t new, either. Still, it’s become a feature of Markkanen’s game, used more prominently in February. Here, let’s watch Markkanen pull down the board and coast all the way into a step back jumper on the baseline.
Ok, watch it again. And again. Now 10 more times. Notice the time and score? The game had just begun. That may not seem important, but it is. Why, you ask? Well, it gives us an insight into Markkanen’s mindset. More than anything else, this has been the biggest change for the sophomore forward. Prone to deferring to others more willing to jack up shots, with a depleted team with few options, Markkanen has no option but to be a focal point. Finally, he’s embraced such a role, aggressively creating points at a rate we’ve never seen from him before.
Finishing the month averaging 26.0 points and 12.2 rebounds, Markkanen produced numbers that scream future All-Star. The same can be said for LaVine.
For most of his career, LaVine has made it easy for critics to type cast him as nothing more than a volume scorer who does little to affect winning. But as Markkanen showcased new aspects to his game, LaVine arguably had his best and most complete month as a professional.
As they always are, the points were there, all 24.5 of them. More importantly, accompanying his scoring totals was an extremely healthy 63.9 true-shooting percentage.
Better still, LaVine has taken steps forward as playmaker. Closing February averaging 5.8 assists per game (and only 2.4 turnovers), LaVine largely operated as the team’s lead playmaker while allowing Markkanen to flourish as the focal point of the offense. This newfound balance between the pair not only serves for greater stability within the wider offensive hierarchy, it’s also transferred into their own 2-man game.
Take this possession as an example. In a halfcourt set going nowhere fast and the clock ticking down to seven seconds, LaVine opting to bailout the team would’ve been defensible — we’ve seen him do it countless times. Instead, looking to re-engage Markkanen, who at the time had only scored four points, LaVine re-enters the ball into the post.
The pass itself wasn’t creative or highlight worthy, but it speaks to the LaVine’s willingness to share the offensive load with Markkanen. As does the monthly splits in usage percentage.
Frankly, any notion that suggests LaVine is little more than a selfish ballhog is lazy at this point, and should be done with now. Through his words, actions and numbers, LaVine has welcomed help. And because it, the Bulls — and Markkanen — have benefited.
- Ok, so we knew Porter was a good, productive veteran, albeit overpaid. But did we know he was this good? Did the Wizards? As he’s done since arriving in Chicago, Porter barely missed from the field against the Grizzlies, knocking down seven of his 12 shots en route to a quietly efficient 20-point evening. Adding six rebounds to his line, Porter was also fantastic on defense, collecting three steals and three blocks in 32 minutes of action.
- The purer your heart, the more minutes you get? That’s the only explanation I have for Robin Lopez leading the team in minutes (40). That, and Cristiano Felicio is god awful and should never play. Based on the minutes distribution, for this game, at least, coach Jim Boylen would agree. Despite tired legs, Lopez was fantastic in dropping back and protecting the rim, blocking a season-high five shots.
- An underrated aspect for the Bulls’ improved offense: playing small off the bench. With Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker now in Washington and Wendell Carter out injured for the remainder of the season, the Bulls have no credible big men on the bench. Forced into playing spot lineups with Porter or Wayne Selden at power forward, though undersized, defense has quickly turned into transition offense for these nimble 5-man units.
- 26 points off turnovers, 30 fastbreak points. These are foreign numbers to an offense previously stuck in slow malaise for several months. This young team needs to run. Keep doing it.
- Speaking of Selden, much like Porter, the guy knows how play. Ignore the two points (1-of-5 shooting). Five rebounds, four steals and two assists in 19 reserve minutes is notable — yes, I will ignore this egregious turnover.
- We need another camera on the broadcast that is dedicated to only tracking my guy Ryan Arcidiacono on the sidelines. For those who haven’t noticed, over the last few weeks, the backup point guard has taken to mimicking his teammates, most notably Robin Lopez. We need to document and compile all of these clips. I’ll contribute this post move:
- Up next: the Bulls leave behind an impressive February run as they head to Atlanta on Friday to battle the Hawks. LaVine and Markkanen versus Trae Young and John Collins. This will be good.