There was meant to be at least one redeeming quality left in watching these injury-plagued Bulls stumble toward the finish line: Lauri Markkanen launching all the shots he wanted.
Turns out we can’t even have that. While we hope Markkannen’s forced absence is more so a last minute tanking strategy than a legitimate health scare, losing him even if for only a handful of games is disappointing.
If nothing else — because there was nothing else — the positives from this Bulls season occurred in February. For the first time since the rebuild began, there were actual signs of growth. And it was mostly due to Markkanen morphing into an All-Star calibre player. In a run of 10 amazing games, Markkanen produced his best month of basketball in his short career, averaging 26 points and 12.2 rebounds per contest.
This won’t be the last time we look back so fondly on Markkanen’s production in February, if only because it’ll be all we have in the malaise. But extrapolating the result over an entire season to forecast future greatness may not be justified.
Did Markkanen noticeably improve, or are we simply letting one fine month of basketball skew our judgement? For his 2 seasons, Markkanen’s per-game numbers suggest there was a bump in production, but that doesn’t hold as much on a per-possession basis.
As noted in the above table, points lifted slightly, but did so at a rate not uncommon to an increase in attempts. Rebounding, assist, steal and block rates all essentially held steady, as did several basic advanced metrics.
This theme also continued for Markkanen’s shooting percentages.
If nothing else, Markkanen was eerily consistent year on year. While notable, and even laudable that he didn’t experience a sophomore slump, it does not show the clear uptick in play that his February suggested.
If you focus on how good Markkanen was in that month, you can’t ignore the mediocre numbers posted in all other months.
But despite the overall by-season numbers suggesting Markkanen didn’t improve much from his time as a rookie, something feels off in making that assessment. Maybe I’m too close to the situation and emotionally invested in his success, but we should provide context to the numbers saying that Markkanen stagnated.
December and January came after a serious elbow injury to his shooting arm during preseason, so a slow start was expected. Add in the coaching change that occurred in December — and all the nonsense that ensued — it’s easy to see how Markkanen could float through the first two months of his season.
And then February happened. Finding his feel and rhythm was made a lot easier after trading for Otto Porter: it meant removing two players, Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker, who were directly competing with Markkanen for minutes and shots. After the Porter deal, the roster was more balanced and the offense was more open. Along with Zach LaVine, Markkanen benefited greatly from the changes. And so did the Bulls, winning half of their games for the month.
But then things fell off again quickly in March. Anecdotally, Markkanen’s production dramatically took a dive after the four overtime epic against the Atlanta Hawks — the forward would eclipse the 20-point mark only once in the 12 games that followed. Now knowing that the fatigue that ended Markkanen’s season was also self-reported after that 4OT game, while it’s speculative to suggest his numbers drop was due to that contest, it’s also somewhat plausible.
Taking these context clues into account make his monthly numbers show more year-over-year improvement. And if that isn’t enough, head back into his season and pull some game tape.
Point-Lauri was an interesting little side note to his rookie season. It became a thing in year two, with plays like this against the Memphis Grizzlies and Cleveland Cavaliers frequently making an appearance.
Not only did Markkanen find new and interesting ways to create baskets for himself, his playmaking for others also took a noticeable leap, even if his assist numbers barely lifted year on year. And therein lies the problems when focusing purely on numbers. While the box score may log a simple dribble hand-off to a shooter the same way it does a pass that finesses itself through the teeth of the defense, we know not all assists are created equal.
So is the case here from another highlight against the Grizzlies, where we witnessed Markkanen throwing out a dime with his off-hand while on the move, hitting Zach LaVine perfectly in his shooting pocket for the corner three.
This type of play is simply one Markkanen couldn’t make in his rookie season. Couple these improvements along with his efficient scoring in February and it’s easy to see why excitement levels rose quickly.
Sure, it was just 10 games. And NBA February, when nearly all opponents are either pivoting towards losing or are at the least disjointed, is a tricky environment to assess individual success. Still, even if the overall numbers suggest otherwise, it’s hard to argue Markkanen didn’t make some gain in his second year when focusing on his improved skillset.
Ultimately, we could look back on this season as establishing Markkanen as the team’s barometer of success. When he was great, the Bulls functioned like a real NBA team. When he wasn’t, the team plummeted to historically bad depths.
As the focal point of the franchise, Markkanen not only showed glimpses of an All-Star ability, he also made it known the Bulls will only go as far as he takes them. Depending on how you view Markkanen’s potential, that may not sit so well. For others, though, a second year player establishing such a commanding presence so soon can only be viewed as a positive for the rebuild.