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Is Lauri Markkanen-Wendell Carter Jr. duo still Bulls’ frontcourt of the future?

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there are plenty of questions after this past season

Chicago Bulls v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Jim Boylen’s continued employment with the Bulls unfortunately continues to be the hottest topic surrounding the team, but let’s not forget about the important questions Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley face when it comes to this roster.

One big one involves Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. and their future together as the starting frontcourt. Just last offseason this duo was reportedly considered untouchable, but nobody should be untouchable now after the dumpster fire of a 2019-20 season. While Karnisovas has said he’s intrigued by the young talent on the roster and K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago has speculated that there won’t be major changes this offseason, Johnson also says he doesn’t think anybody actually is untouchable.

Markkanen and Carter, theoretically, are a pretty dynamic pairing. Markkanen at his best (long live February 2019) is a lethal stretch 4 who can score inside and out. Carter came into the NBA touted as an Al Horford type who could stretch the court and be a playmaking hub in the middle, while also offering steady play on the defensive end of the court to help make up for Markkanen’s shortcomings.

Unfortunately, things haven’t gone as smoothly as hoped with these two.

Injuries have obviously been a problem, with Markkanen playing 102 out of 147 games the last two seasons and Carter playing 87. It’s hard to build up chemistry when you’re on the pine all the time.

But even when they’ve been on the court together, the results have been ... blah.

2018-19 was a total disaster for this duo, with the Bulls getting outscored by a whopping 13.7 points per 100 possessions (96.5 ORtg, 110.1 DRtg) in only 436 minutes together, per NBA.com. 2019-20 did see a pretty significant improvement in terms of the Bulls’ performance with these two on the court, but there was obviously nowhere to go but up. In 856 minutes with Markkanen and Carter on the floor, the Bulls were outscored by just 0.5 points per 100 possessions (104.9 ORtg, 105.4 DRtg).

The Bulls’ improved defense with Carter manning the middle played a role here, but they still struggled in the rebounding department (Lauri’s rebounding numbers took a major dip) and that jump in offensive rating isn’t even that notable given it would still rank 29th in the NBA and is worse than the team’s overall offensive rating (105.8).

Both Markkanen and Carter struggled to leave their imprint on offense throughout the season, and they both have taken issue with their respective roles. Markkanen too often floated around the perimeter and saw his usage rate drop by 4 percentage points. He lost all semblance of a mid-range game (this was by design, but probably went to the extreme) and routinely got punked when he tried putting the ball on the floor. He was awful in his limited clutch opportunities as Zach LaVine dominated the ball.

Meanwhile, Carter still barely shoots jumpers (sometimes he doesn’t look at the rim even when he’s left alone!) and is rarely used as an offensive hub to create good looks. His 10.7% assist percentage as a rookie was promising, but that dipped to 6.0% in 2019-20. While his overall efficiency jumped because he made a killing around the bucket and actually shot 51.5% from 10-16 feet, the low usage and overall lack of involvement in the offense limited his impact.

Given both Markkanen and Carter have had issues with their roles, bringing in a new coach who could better take advantage of their skill sets makes all the sense in the world. Getting them more involved, including in actions together, would be nice to see. As of right now, we’re just getting speculation of a “tweaked offensive system” in 2020-21.

Setting that aside, though, it’s fair to wonder if this duo will be the long-term frontcourt in Chicago. Markkanen hasn’t shown sustained development in his three seasons in the NBA and might not be the foundational piece he was once hoped to be. He’s eligible for an extension this offseason, but I’d be surprised if the Bulls offered him anything to his liking after a disappointing season. ESPN’s Bobby Marks’ suggestion of offering Markkanen something in the range of the deals Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner got from the Pacers (so about 4 years, $75 million) seems awfully generous.

As for a trade, Markkanen’s value isn’t exactly high right now, Maybe there’s a team out there that’s still high on his potential and smells blood in the water because of this Boylen nonsense, but I wouldn’t want to sell too low. I’d rather let him bet on himself and let things play out in 2020-21 instead of just dumping him. But, again, he’s not untouchable and a trade should be considered.

Carter is probably a little safer since he’s just two years in and is only 21 years old. I still think he can be an effective two-way center, but apparently he’s on some kick about wanting to play more power forward, which is a sentiment I’ve seen shared by some fans. He is a little on the smaller side and gets in foul trouble too much, though he does have an impressive near-7-foot-5 wingspan to aid him as a rim protector and against legit size. I must admit I don’t see Carter as a power forward in this NBA, even with positions not meaning as much. But if that’s something that becomes a sticking point for him, that could further complicate his partnership with Markkanen, though you could argue these two are just interchangeable at the 4 and 5.

With this new front office in place, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they want to see more Markkanen and Carter together before making any drastic decisions. I still like the idea of these two together, even if the production and success hasn’t been there. However, the clock is ticking on them, and skepticism is warranted about their long-term viability as a duo in Chicago.