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Lauri Markkanen is returning, here’s who it will affect the most

Wait, do the Chicago Bulls have depth?

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Washington Wizards POOL PHOTOS-USA TODAY Sports

Lauri Markkanen returned to practice Tuesday after doing hard time in the NBA contact tracing protocol.

Prior to his calf injury that held him out even before the health protocol absences, a case could be made that Lauri Markkanen was playing like the Bulls best player. But a funny thing happened while he, along with Tomas Satoransky, Ryan Arcidiacono and Chandler Hutchison, were away. The Bulls played better.

Was this simply the game by game, day by day improvement of a real head coach correcting mistakes and teaching? Or something related to these specific players and their responsibilities?

Their replacements did well, too be sure. Garrett Temple largely produced little drop-off from Satoransky. Lauri Markkanen was replaced in the starting lineup by Otto Porter, giving the Bulls a much stronger defensive presence and a look that mirrors the more wing-heavy [‘heavy’...heh -yfbb] trend enveloping the rest of the NBA. Bench minutes were largely taken by Thaddeus Young, who has also looked completely revitalized under Billy Donovan.

Who stands to lose time with Lauri returning?

The Bulls need to find roughly 30 minutes per game for Lauri to fill.

Bulls Minutes at PF/C

Player MPG at PF/C
Player MPG at PF/C
Wendell Carter 25
Thaddeus Young 25
Patrick Williams 17
Daniel Gafford 15
Otto Porter 13

Lauri played almost 50% of his minutes at center in his short season so far. The obvious first move is to bench Gafford and pull him from the regular rotation. Gafford had a few big moments, but overall his lack of defensive rebounding, pick and roll defense, and ability to do anything on offense other than grab boards and make open dunks limit the team when he’s on the floor.

After Gafford, the decision gets tougher.

Who should be losing that time?

These rotation decisions depend on several factors, most of which involve the actual team direction for this year and the future.

Maximizing wins for this year likely means playing the hot hand and keeping this a complete meritocracy. Markkanen is the worst defender of the group, and his offense in the starting lineup may actually be superfluous since he’s largely an offensive endpoint and is least likely to share the ball or contribute to team offense. He’ll need to continue to be red hot on the offensive side of the ball to justify more minutes immediately upon return.

Using this year for internal development first and foremost would apply to Lauri, Wendell and Patrick Williams. Wendell picked up his play recently, and the Bulls probably don’t want Lauri playing more than 15 minutes per game at center anyway, removing him as a viable candidate.

But out of that trio, when it comes to Lauri he more fits in with Thad and Otto when it comes to likelihood of a future with the team. Chicago should view Lauri’s chance of returning as a dice throw given they couldn’t come to terms with him on an early extension this past off-season. It’s more of a stretch to think Porter and the Bulls will agree on a new contract this offseason: he has come into camp out of shape two years in a row, generally seems fairly unmotivated altogether, and health hasn’t been his forte. If Chicago has to hurt someone’s feelings, Otto should be that guy. Thad’s deal next year is not fully guaranteed ($6M out of $14M), but if Chicago has little else to spend money on this off-season, then keeping Thad for another season feels reasonable.

So then do the Bulls view any of these unlikely-staying-long-term players as tradeable at this year’s deadline, and will giving them more minutes increase their value? It’s likely AKME in the front office has some gauge of value due after trade conversations around the draft. Porter and Young are mostly known quantities, so what is paramount to maintaining their trade value is simply them being healthy. Lowering Lauri’s minutes could reduce his trade value, but might also make him cheaper to retain in the off-season.

Whether or not AKME is directing Donovan on rotations at all in order to help set the market of players is also dicey. Gaming the rotations to build trade value may undermine Billy’s attempts to set forth a strong culture steeped in a basis of open and honest communication. Otto, Lauri and Thad are all playing for a contracts and Williams needs as many developmental minutes as the Bulls can spare.

This puts Donovan’s relationship skills to the test: with limited minutes to feed three players that may become disgruntled without them, and a fourth that is the franchise’s highest priority to play.

Prediction time

Perhaps injuries, contact tracing, and load management will solve the rotation a considerable number of nights, but when not the Bulls will be in for tough choices.

I think Lauri gets the nod in this situation initially, as he checks both boxes best: most likely to help with wins as well as most likely (outside of Williams and Carter) to provide long term value for the franchise. I’ll say Lauri comes back to 28 minutes per game; 15 of those minutes will come from Gafford, plus 5 from Thad, 5 from Otto, and 3 from Pat.

But if the Bulls see struggles with Markkanen back on the court, then more Thad/Otto could be in order.