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Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter, and the modern NBA front court

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Do Lauri and Wendell fit together?

Toronto Raptors v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

There have been two recent trends to the Power Forward / Center positions in the NBA, both in the way teams manage their front court rotations and the skills required to play those positions.

  1. There is a high premium on three point shooting. Generally, a team needs at least three quality three point shooters on the floor at all times. They often want four, meaning someone in the frontcourt is included.
  2. The important traits of big men on defense have shifted away from size and strength and more towards speed and versatility.

What does this mean for Lauri Markkanen?

Lauri Markkanen now doesn’t really fit the mold of the power forward position. Players such as Otto Porter, traditionally a small forward, now often play up at power forward as lineups continue to shrink. As teams make this shift more frequently, the penalty for lack of size shrinks and the penalty for lack of speed grows. To the point where the terms ‘small’ forward and ‘power’ forward are trending towards obsolescence as teams are viewing those positions as largely interchangeable.

Markkanen lacks the defensive versatility to defend multiple positions, effectively switch, or play strong help defense. On offense, his shooting is no longer a huge strength relative to playing a big wing in that position, and he also lacks the ball handling and passing skills more common in those configurations.

Lauri’s differences in skill and size bring some strengths too. Against many teams, he can bring size mismatch potential on the inside: just one or two dribble moves to the basket with the ability to finish over defenders more easily.

How useful Lauri becomes becomes a function of whether Lauri can utilize those strengths more than teams punish his weaknesses. The Bulls will need to decide how well he fits into their future knowing that he doesn’t match the mold of the rest of the league.

Or what about moving Lauri up to center? He’s currently playing considerable minutes there. It creates mismatches on offense, but given his health history, the Bulls likely won’t want him there against true centers too frequently. There’s a reason even Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis played forward, to avoid taking a huge pounding night in and night out.

What does this mean for Wendell Carter?

The modern center, in contrast, hasn’t yet necessitated becoming a big three point shooter. While there are a few in the league that are solid, it is still far from the norm. While shooting and spacing are important across the whole lineup, having a big player that can’t easily be switched on to stop a dunk when the defense rotates is more valuable than having a fourth perimeter shooter.

Centers now come in a few different basic varieties once you get past the couple of star players at the position (Embiid, Jokic). Most of fall into one of two categories; the tall, athletic, pogo stick, or the big physical bruiser.

Wendell Carter is a hybrid of these player types. He lacks the pure size / physicality of the bruiser but carries enough weight / strength that he’s at a speed / hops deficit to the pogo stick. His skill level also ranges somewhere in between fairly rudimentary towards pretty balanced. While Wendell appears to have taken a step back defensively in this drop scheme, Donovan has repeatedly defended him and instead placed blame on the guards for not defending better at the point of attack.

For Wendell to be successful, he will need to use his strength against the lean athletic centers to gain position and interior shots, continue to improve his jump shot to pull bigger players out of the paint, and set strong screens for our guards to free their games up.

How does this tandem fit together?

While perhaps not quite as daunting as the Zach / Coby fit question, the Bulls need to decide if this tandem can flourish in the future.

Based on their current skillsets, they’re a poor fit.

Lauri is a highly specialized player with very distinct strengths and weaknesses. His best fit is next to another specialized player that can cover his weaknesses. A strong interior shot blocker and strong pick and roll defender would help cover up his defensive short comings.

Wendell at center is more of a jack of all trades, tweener type. He’s average to pretty good at everything, but he’s not exceptional at anything. Wendell’s best fit would likely be next to another well rounded PF which would result in tremendous versatility on both sides of the floor to switch on defense / offense and punish less balanced teams.

Time will tell this season if the Bulls can unlock some less obvious synergy between the pair. But without fundamental improvement of one or the other, the team’s best bet for the future is looking at a different pairing.