Last week, the Chicago Bulls chose to stand idle at the trade deadline. Despite a 19-35 record, the Bulls are still within striking distance of nabbing the eighth seed to make the postseason. A trade to acquire more talent could have helped them bolster their chances of reaching the playoffs, or the Bulls could have looked to flip some of their veteran talents for younger pieces and assets. While the Bulls did nothing, that didn’t mean it was all peaceful/headline free that afternoon for Chicago.
Earlier in the day, a rumor was put out by Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times regarding the future of a player the Bulls view as part of their core, Lauri Markkanen. During an appearance on 670 The Score, Cowley said that things are not looking good in terms of Markkanen staying a Bull down the road. Per The Score’s website, this is what Cowley said about Markkanen’s future in Chicago:
“The internal culture is not good,” Cowley said. “If everything stands as it is right now, I’m telling you this right now, Lauri Markkanen doesn’t want to stay here, doesn’t want to play here, doesn’t want to play with this structure that he has right now. So he’s gone. If they don’t want to make any moves, he’s gone. When he can go, he’s going to go. And that was one of your foundation pieces. So you’re flawed there.”
Although this is a rumor and seemingly a bit speculative in nature, it’s still something to monitor. If it is true, Chicago could see one of its young pieces leave soon, which would be another step back in a troubling rebuild.
The Bulls still can extend Markkanen in the summer (K.C. Johnson says there will be negotiations) and also have the advantage of matching rights on Markkanen if he hits restricted free agency in 2021. These rumors are still troublesome, though. For a franchise that has struggled to attract marquee free agents in the past, this only hinders their reputation. It affects the view of the culture within the locker room. No player likes to go into a place or team where disorganization and unhappiness are present.
Again, who knows just how true this is (Markkanen’s frustration has been apparent this season, at the very least), but it was significant enough for John Paxson to acknowledge it. It was a smart move by the Bulls to address it immediately, as the longer the rumor went without being discussed by their FO, the more worrying it could get. As expected, Paxson rebutted the notion of Markkanen’s unhappiness:
John Paxson said he talked to Lauri Markkanen’s agent today and has been given no indication Markkanen wants out. Did acknowledge, as Markkanen has addressed publicly, the need to improve his role in offense.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) February 6, 2020
This was the best way the Bulls could go about this. Even if Markkanen is unhappy, you can’t come out and just say that. It would hinder a lot of their plans in terms of Markkanen’s trade value and how free agents view Chicago as a landing spot. Paxson also brought up a crucial point when it came to Markkanen, and that was his role in the offense.
It’s no secret that Markkanen has had an up-and-down 2019-20 season thus far. He started the season opener with a bang but then followed that up with two months of poor basketball. He showed signs of life in December by bouncing back tremendously, but then struggled when the new calendar year arrived. He’s putting up just 15.0 points per game and has stagnated in terms of his development.
The same problems we saw from Markkanen last season have been popping up. While his form looks fine and he will struggle in some games when it comes to shooting as all players do, his usage is once again an issue. There are times where Markkanen won’t even touch the ball during stretches of the game and end up with very few shot attempts in a half or even an entire game. The Bulls have used Markkanen largely as a spot-up shooter, and it’s hindering both parties.
Markkanen has shown flashes that he’s more than a spot-up shooter. He can make defenses pay by putting the ball on the floor and attacking defenders head-on. But those moments have been too few and far between this season, and a good reason for that is a lack of opportunities on Markkanen’s part. It’s hard to make a huge overall offensive impact when you are just standing near the 3-point line all the time. Markkanen has a 3-point attempt rate of 53.5 this season. While shooting from deep is a strength, he needs more variety in his shot selection. You can’t pigeonhole him in a very specified role and then expect him to grow.
While part of it is on Markkanen the player, a lot of it starts with the Bulls’ coaching staff. Implementing a game plan where Markkanen gets a constant number of shots, both from inside and outside the arc, needs to be more strongly implemented.
Having a core young piece like Markkanen being unhappy is never a good sign for any organization. The source of the problem directly relates to the product on the basketball court. Chicago hasn’t done enough to get him involved in the offense. That doesn’t just include Markkanen; Wendell Carter Jr. has also struggled to expand his offensive game. If the Bulls want their pieces to grow this season, no matter where they end up in the standings, they need touches. Having a more balanced offense when Markkanen comes back from injury will surely help the flow of Chicago’s offense. It would help Markkanen’s growth and keep him happy. Plus, it would take a bit of the scoring load off Zach LaVine so he doesn’t need to be Superman every night to keep the Bulls in games.
However true these rumors are, it is clear Markkanen has been frustrated this season, and it all starts with the offense. The Bulls need to get him more involved and diversify his game. He also needs to take matters into his own hands when he returns to the floor. It’s imperative that the Bulls figure things out with Lauri Markkanen, otherwise this whole rebuild takes another step toward total failure.