Bulls mailbag: Bring Lauri Markkanen off bench? Re-sign Thad Young?

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K.C. Johnson
·11 min read
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Bulls mailbag: Bring Markkanen off bench? Re-sign Young? originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The Bulls began a stretch of five games in seven days with Thursday's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. They’re busier than even I was answering all your questions.

After that dreadful 0-3 start, the Bulls finished with a winning record of 16-15. (It still counts!) There were lots of highs and some lows. Will they continue their climb to north of .500 or are more ups and downs expected? --- Trevor B.

Using that math, the Bulls are over .500 since the dynasty ended if you eliminate seasons 1998-2004 and seasons 2017-2020... But I digress.

It’s a young team. On paper, it’s a tougher schedule. Translated: There will be ups and downs. But I predicted the Bulls to finish 27-45, so what do I know? It’s why they play the games.

I’ll say this: Billy Donovan consistently talks about playing to the team’s identity, which, broadly speaking, is competing with physicality, cutting with force, sharing the ball, following the game plan and defending without fouling. More often than not, win or lose, this team is doing that. If nothing else, this has led to watching more enjoyable, more competitive basketball -- 76ers dud aside.

Longtime reader, first-time “mailbagger.” I wanted to ask if you think there’s any chance we see any real rotation changes during the second half of the season? Things I’d like to see, such as Lauri Markkanen coming off the bench to provide a better offense/defense balance to the starting lineup, are likely out of the question due to his contract situation. What could Billy D. do if he wanted to shake things up for a playoff push? --- Michael W.

Good to hear from you and welcome, Michael.

One thing is clear about Donovan and rotations/playing time: He does what he thinks is best for the team. So Lauri Markkanen is starting not because of his contract situation but because Donovan thinks it gives the Bulls the best chance to win.

You surely have noticed that Donovan also staggers Markkanen’s minutes and brings him back with the second unit. So I think there’s at least a nod to that offense/defense balance to which you allude. Otherwise, I think Donovan has done a good job of not only keeping everybody engaged but making the rotation fluid as needed.

Even if someone didn’t agree why he played Luke Kornet over Daniel Gafford, he had a well-thought out reason for doing so. Another example of doing what’s best for the team was the time he sat Coby White, Patrick Williams and Wendell Carter Jr. to open the second half against the Detroit Pistons.

Lo and behold, instead of pouting, White hit a crucial fourth-quarter shot to help the comeback victory.

What grade would you give Patrick Williams so far and how good do you think he could be? And when Lauri Markkanen returns, would you keep the same lineup and bring Markkanen off the bench? Or put him back in the starting lineup because it's a contract year for him? --- @Mr_Briscoe1128, via Twitter

I’d put Markkanen in the starting lineup because he’s one of the Bulls’ five-best players, not because he’s in a contract year. And he was starting before he got hurt. It’s easy: Slide Williams back to small forward and bring Garrett Temple off the bench.

Williams is in the B to B-plus range to me. He hasn’t been flashy. But for the second-youngest player in the league to handle the defensive assignments that have been thrown at him, not blink when asked to start and contribute offensively, he has been impressive. If he gets a B-plus, it’s because he handled all this, like all rookies, without the benefit of finishing his college season or getting an NBA Summer League or getting a normal NBA training camp. It’s a lot.

His ceiling will be determined by what kind of offensive impact he makes. Defensively, he has the size, strength and versatility to be a force for years. Like a lot of young players, he sometimes struggles with knowing when to be assertive offensively. But his ballhandling and shooting look solid. He needs to work on attacking more and figuring out when to assert himself.

I love our vets off the bench but think their contributions raise our team's floor more than they raise our ceiling. Who needs to step up this second half of the season to guarantee a playoff appearance? Zach LaVine and Thad Young are about as efficient as they can be in their roles, save for some turnover issues. Who else can take it up another gear? --- Jaime M.

I'm not so sure he can take it up a gear, except in rebounding, but Lauri Markkanen needs to prove his strong start before his shoulder injury is sustainable. To me, he's the key player to the second half. He makes the offense so much more dynamic when he's playing well.

Most of the coverage that I’ve read on Thad Young alludes to an assumption that he probably isn’t in the Bulls long-term plans. After his stretch of play this season, you have to wonder if the Bulls themselves would feel the same way. Young is, well, still young despite his 14 years of experience. At 32 and with the way he keeps himself in shape, why couldn’t he keep playing at roughly this level for two to four more years? The time for letting quality veterans leave to “get younger and more athletic” is over. --- Nick P.

This is a good point, particularly since Young is the consummate teammate who would have value even in a Udonis Haslem-type role in Miami. And you’re right: Young is in fantastic shape.

Young has many off-the-court interests, including recently buying into an ownership stake of a professional team in New Zealand. He also oversees a successful AAU program. So only he knows when he wants to hang it up. It’s hard to be in a better position than the Bulls are with Young, who has value both as a trade chip and on the roster.

Artūras Karnišovas doubled down on his vote of confidence for Lauri Markkanen while likely monitoring the progress of Marko Simonović who could be ready as soon as the 2022-23 season. How expendable does this make Lauri? Do Bulls have a new magic number in mind for a Lauri extension, or will they match any RFA offer? --- @craftbeersochi, via Twitter

I agree that Karnišovas has been consistent in his praise for and assessment of Markkanen. It’s why I believed they would hit on a rookie scale contract extension before the season. That they ended up not close has led to widespread speculation about Markkanen’s future.

But the fact the Bulls offered a multi-year extension suggests the belief in Markkanen as a long-term fit is legitimate. While Simonović is an intriguing prospect, projecting him as Markkanen insurance feels like a bit of a stretch at this point. That said, I’m just as curious as you to see what the market is for Markkanen. I’d be surprised if the Bulls went past $20 million annually.

Zach LaVine has been playing lights out while playing efficient basketball, shooting almost 54 percent (47 percent from 3) over the past two months. Do you have any concerns over the minutes he is playing, currently tied for 14th in the league at 35.6 minutes per game? The last time he played this many minutes, he blew out an ACL. --- Harold P.

I personally have no concerns because it’s not my job to be concerned. I can tell you that Billy Donovan has talked about the amount of responsibility he has placed on LaVine’s plate, including significant playing time. But guess what? That’s what star players receive. And LaVine is in fantastic shape, works hard to be ready for such a load and never once complains about minutes. I wasn’t covering him when he tore his ACL, but I think connecting such an injury merely to playing time is shortsighted.

I have a question regarding the Bulls and fans attending games. I’m starting to see more arenas allowing fans to attend, albeit very few fans. Nevertheless, fans are there. What will it take for Bulls fans to attend games? Is there anything the front office can do to convince the city to allow 25 percent capacity? There has to be some safe method of accommodating fans. Are there any discussions happening concerning this that you know of? I’m thinking fans in the stands can be a plus for the team in the close-margin games. --- Kenneth H.

Before the season, NBA commissioner Adam Silver himself stated the hope would be for all arenas to be accommodating fans by the season’s end. But the league cedes to all state and local protocols regarding COVID-19. The Bulls long have had positive relationships with all levels of state and local government. However, while announcing the allowed capacities for Cubs and White Sox games, which, obviously, is an outdoor sport, Mayor Lori Lightfoot did say fans still aren’t allowed in indoor arenas.

The last home game before the All-Star break marked the first game where, in accordance with health and safety guidelines provided by the city, state and public health officials, the Bulls allowed a small number of friends and family of players and coaches to sit in the upper suites. If the improved numbers stay where they are or lower as more people get vaccinated, perhaps a limited number of fans will be allowed before season’s end.

If the Bulls make a move before the trade deadline, I hope it’s to fill the defensive gap at center. Do you think Mo Bamba would be available? I think he's a better option than rent-a-player like Andre Drummond. --- Tom H. 

I said on our Bulls Talk podcast that the only way I’d consider Drummond is if it’s straight up for Otto Porter Jr. I wouldn’t even throw a small asset in like a second-round pick, which, given Artūras Karnišovas’ usage of second-round picks, could be important either as a pick or as a future trade sweetener. So, like you, I wouldn’t burn an asset for a rent-a-player.

Bamba is intriguing, but he adds another young, raw player who, while has defensive potential, isn’t strong enough to stop the big centers that Wendell Carter Jr. sometimes struggles against.

I also had an inquiry from Mark F. about an Al Horford fit. He has two years, $53 million left on his deal, though the second season isn’t fully guaranteed. Karnisovas has talked about preserving cap space so I don’t see this as a likely scenario.

And I’m also a little bemused by all the angst over the dramatic need for a backup center. Yes, Carter is undersized at times. Yes, Thad Young is too and you want to make sure not to overplay him. And, sure, the trio of Daniel Gafford, Luke Kornet and Cristiano Felicio is a lot of big bodies and little production. But a segment of the fan base has moved from “Start Gafford!” to “Need a backup center!” for that rush to the seventh or eighth seed. It’s amusing.

Back in the 2018 draft, there were reports that the Bulls were essentially split in their front office between taking Collin Sexton vs Wendell Carter Jr. In retrospect, it appears the wrong decision was made as we watch Wendell struggle with injuries and his jump shot while watching Sexton’s ascent this season. Do you have any insight on how that decision was made and who was on each side of the decision? --- Mark F.

I worked for the Chicago Tribune then and, along with the Sun-Times, reported on that debate. From what I was told at the time, it was a pretty straightforward and typical debate and only one voice was very set on Sexton. But as with most teams, the debate worked its way through until a consensus on Carter was reached.

The wild part about such decisions is the future ramifications. Coby White isn’t a Bull if they select Sexton that draft. Sexton is having a nice season for the Cavaliers. But such observations aren’t always apples-to-apples comparisons. Would he be in the same role here? How would he fit with these teammates? And all of this doesn’t even address Carter and what he might still become. It’s why sports debates are so rich.

Thanks for all your questions. Talk to you soon.

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