Seeing Wendell Carter Jr. writhing in pain on the floor in Dallas, we all instinctively knew it was going to cost the Bulls starting center some time. That was confirmed on Thursday, with the Bulls announcing Carter’s prognosis requiring an absence of four to six weeks.
We also were likely mentally preparing ourselves for such news, and it’s truly hard to take because there is no adequate way for the Bulls to replace Carter.
That was evident in the stunning to loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday, a game in which the Bulls had little success in their typical defensive scheme, whether that was trapping pick-and-rolls or defending the paint. Carter was the one successfully managing this all season, and the loss against the Pelicans is the surest sign of what is to come for the Bulls over the next month they are without their starting center.
Jim Boylen confirmed it as much post-game:
“Our best defensive player didn’t play, So that makes it hard on us.”
Carter’s loss will first be felt on the floor, but the impact will influence higher up in what will almost surely be another lost season.
The defense is going to take a serious hit
Losing Carter is obviously a problem for any defense, but the Bulls scheme was specifically tailored to his strengths. Much has been said about Jim Boylen’s overly aggressive defense, one predicated on guarding pick-and-roll with as much pressure on the ball-handler as possible even extended beyond the 3-point line, with an aim to cause turnovers and get his team playing in transition. Running such a scheme only works when a team is full of athletes who readily communicate and rotate as their bodies fly from one assignment to the next, all on a singular defensive possession.
It’s largely a gimmick, and we’ve seen it exposed by teams who are capable of adjusting and passing through the double-teams until they find an open man for an easy score. This occurred against the Pelicans, but is a trend that had emerged even with Carter on the floor during the prior four games.
Now without Carter, it is going to be an even larger problem if Boylen thinks he can run the same scheme and simply replace Carter with someone else. The Bulls have no backup on their roster who comes close to having the physical and mental defensive tools Carter does.
As such, the scheme needs to adjust to its personnel. Boylen should opt for a more conservative, drop-style pick-and-roll defense, one similar to the Milwaukee Bucks deploy.
This would be wise particularly to start games when Lauri Markkanen is to spend more time at center. Markkanen isn’t great at communicating, recovering and helping on defense. Keep Markkanen closer to the basket and hope the perimeter rotations don’t break, that’s the best bet here moving forward.
The impact on the rotation
Against the Pelicans, Boylen opted for a smaller starting lineup, sending Markkanen in at center with Thad Young starting at power forward.
We shall see if the Markkanen-Young combination remains beyond that game. It made more sense against that particular opponent, a team that started three guards and had a small forward playing up into the four spot. But given Young’s displeasure with his minutes and role, it’s fair to assume he will keep the starting gig if only to appease him.
Moreover, Daniel Gafford shouldn’t start simply because he isn’t ready. The rookie selected in the second round has provided an instant boost in limited minutes from the bench with his rim protection and forceful rim-rolling on offense. But that’s exactly why Gafford has been better than expected: his role has been small, defined, and suited to his current raw skill level. Asking Gafford to expand his game now isn’t fair on him. He still will receive increased minutes in the wake of this Carter injury, though Gafford has his own ankle issue: he followed a 5-dunk night in Dallas with an invisible performance in New Orleans.
With Young in the starting lineup next to Markkanen, it leaves a noticeable gap in the second unit at power forward. Boylen can fill this by simply playing three bigs and massaging his rotation to allow one of Markkanen or Young to always be on the floor, but I would also expect to see Chandler Hutchison slide up to the four for a few minutes. It will not go well, but it’s worth a look.
Unfortunately, the cascading effect from that means means more 3-guard lineups, whether that’s Ryan Arcidiacono, Shaq Harrison, or the recently re-exiled Denzel Valentine.
Is it time for the Bulls to sell?
This upcoming spiel is not about selling the franchise, sorry to disappoint.
Assuming the current five-game losing streak continues to grow as the upcoming schedule intensifies and Carter’s injury hurts team performance, the Bulls seriously need to consider abandoning the pursuit of a low playoff seed and first-round annihilation, and instead pull the plug on the season.
(Now, the Bulls may not need to do that given they’ve organically built the sixth worse record in the league in a season in which they were chasing the playoffs....)
This means trading away players who they definitely do not view as keepers. Reports of the Los Angeles Clippers being interested in trading for Young have already surfaced. Trading Young may seem counterintuitive given the frontcourt rotation is one player short with Carter out, and for the next couple weeks it probably is a bad move. But this is also an opportune time for the Bulls to showcase Young in an expanded role to rebuild some trade value.
But why stop there? Selling off players like Denzel Valentine, an impending restrictred free-agent, makes sense. See if a contender will give you a shitty second-rounder for a player who may be able to come in and catch-and-shoot for a playoff bound team (oh hai Sixers).
Kris Dunn has the same contractual status as Valentine, though he’s now entrenched as the starting small forward as Otto Porter’s injury lingers interminably. While it seemed before the season like the Bulls and Dunn were headed toward a divorce, that may have changed given his improved play. But now is the time to decide if he should remain a Bull beyond this season. And if not, trade him now to get some asset in return rather than losing one of the pieces of the Jimmy Butler deal for nothing.
The decision to trade Dunn is also dependent on what the team does with Tomas Satoransky. Similarly to Young, Satoransky is a veteran on a multi-year contract better suited to a contender. Maybe Dunn stays and Sato goes, meaning more minutes for rookie Coby White (a.k.a. reviving the tank).
There’s also that guy who has a relatively massive contract but has barely played all season. No, not Cristiano Felicio. The other guy. The Otto guy. OK, no one is trading for him, and he’s likely opting into the exorbitant final year on his deal. Forget about that one.
Does Bulls management now have their excuse?
Are you even a real Bulls fan if you haven’t already hit the fast forward button to the end of season press conference, only to wonder how management will spin another lost season?
You know it’s coming. From Paxson’s lips to your ears, the nauseating use of the word accountability will happen. So too will the actual absence of it. Carter’s injury and, of course, the loss of Porter for much of the season, will be the primary justification used to explain why this season turned into a pile of mush.
Even if it cracks were starting to show already, the defensive slide will be blamed on Carter’s absence, giving Boylen and his illogical scheme a convenient out.
“Losing Otto, only to then lose Wendell. Down two starters, not many teams can recover from that, especially a team as young as ours. And we couldn’t. It’s unfortunate, particularly after Jim and his staff, along with the players, had us sitting as the third best defense in the league. I believe we were second on defense from December, behind only the Bucks. But injuries are not an excuse. We take accountability. But those moments hurt us.” - Paxson, most probably.
You know it’s coming, folks. And like most things Bulls, the entrenchment of management is the worst part of this bad situation.