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Playing Lauri Markkanen at center will bring its own set of challenges

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Robin Lopez has helped cover things for Lauri

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

At his end-of-season presser, John Paxson highlighted the desire to have more versatility in the lineup. Specifically, Paxson talked about adding versatile wings and sliding Lauri Markkanen to the 5 more often:

This all sounds great and makes sense. Running a 5-out offense with Lauri’s skill set at the 5 could be devastating offensively and tracks with the way the NBA has been trending. Getting additional ‘versatile’ players to fill out the rest of the lineup would obviously be a key step toward helping that, but Markkanen himself will need to prove he can make the necessary improvements himself to make the lineup work, especially when it comes to things other than scoring.

Markkanen entered the league with questions about his defense and rebounding. While I’d say he has been at least slightly better than expected in those areas (rebounding especially), Robin Lopez has played a role in that. While Lopez is no dominant defender, he’s still a credible rim protector and has always been known as a boxout fiend, someone who clears space for teammates to get rebounds.

In both 2017-18 and 2018-19, Markkanen’s defensive rebound percentage took a sizable jump with Lopez on the floor. The Bulls’ defensive rebound percentage was also higher:


You’ll also notice that the Bulls’ on-court defensive rating was much worse when Markkanen played without Lopez. This obviously isn’t all on Lauri given the Bulls’ personnel the last few seasons, but it’s a sizable difference. This defensive trend was also true during the Bulls’ improved February, when the offense became elite for a stretch but the defense was about six points per 100 possessions worse when Lopez left the court.

A positive, though, is that Markkanen’s personal defensive rebounding was great regardless in February. Markkanen’s efficiency also took a major leap without RoLo by his side both seasons (and a big one in February), even if the Bulls’ own offensive rating wasn’t better.

Robin Lopez had a great back half of this season, but it’s unclear if he’ll be back next year (I’d be for it), and the Bulls obviously have a young starting center in Wendell Carter Jr. who will be returning from injury next season. Carter’s development may help the defense a lot, but he won’t be on the court to cover when Markkanen is playing the 5. Again, Lauri is going to have to make his own improvements to be an effective anchor in the middle.

That means getting stronger (Paxson acknowledged this) so his body can hold up better. We have to hope he’s totally over whatever ‘fatigue’ set in that ended his second season.

Skills-wise, Lauri needs to be come a more impactful rim protector, as his 0.6 blocks per game so far in his career is a very low mark for a 7-footer. He needs to get better guarding pick-and-roll and switching onto guards (he has shown some signs of competence here), and his general awareness could certainly be better.

Jim Boylen highlighted Lauri’s need for these improvements, in his own insane way, via Mark Schanowski of NBC Sports Chicago:

“First of all he needs to get lost on the defensive end of the floor.... and the rebounding. When he gets a rebound off that board, it does something for him, spiritually. He feels he’s in control of the game when he can bring it and make decisions. His ability to defend, for us to get a stop, and then him rebound the ball, I think is a huge part of his maturation, you know, his aura as a player.”

The good news here is Markkanen seems to have a great attitude and work ethic. While I don’t think he’ll ever be a high-level defender, an improvement to average would be big given the offensive potential, and we’ve seen evidence he can rebound at an adequate level without Lopez helping him.

While I’m looking forward to seeing how the Markkanen-Carter pairing works together, I’m also excited to see how these 5-out units fare as Lauri continues his development.