Lauri Markkanen’s Bulls return comes at fascinating time for surging offense

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Rob Schaefer
·6 min read
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Why Markkanen’s return comes at fascinating time for Bulls originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Let’s get this out of the way early: After a seven-game absence, Lauri Markkanen’s return to the Bulls’ lineup on Friday against the Oklahoma City Thunder should only augment an offense that has surged in recent games.

The Bulls’ path to the league’s third-rated offense since Jan. 5, scoring 119 points per 100 possessions, has been littered with hot shooting. And in the three-and-a-half games he played, no one in a Bulls uniform was shooting at a better clip than Markkanen. Thus far, he’s connected on 47.8 percent of his 3s (5.8 attempts per game, all catch-and-shoot) and averaging 7.8 free throw attempts per 100 possessions (a career best by a mile). The result is a 17.3-point scoring average along with exceptional 66.2 percent true shooting. 

Markkanen’s last game came Dec. 29 against the Washington Wizards, which he left minutes into the third quarter with a calf contusion. By Dec. 31, he had entered the NBA’s health and safety protocol after close contact with the COVID-19 positive Chandler Hutchison.

“It was frustrating,” Markkanen said of his absence coming during a stretch of strong play. “But we can’t change that anymore. Just got to move on, and come back and play well again.”

Now, he rejoins a team that looks a good deal different than when he left. And in a good way. That makes for some interesting storylines.

Three things to watch as Markkanen -- along with Ryan Arcidiacono and eventually Hutchison and Tomáš Satoranský -- reintegrates into the Bulls’ construct:

Ramp up?

Markkanen and Arcidiacono were able to run some 3-on-3 before officially rejoining 5-on-5 in Tuesday’s practice. Arcidiacono described “prison workouts” he was able to do with his yoga mat, foam rollers and resistance bands while quarantined in his apartment.

While a minutes ramp-up can't be ruled out, and Markkanen emphasized it’s always a process to get one’s rhythm and conditioning back after a long spell away from the court, an unexpected four-night break in the team’s schedule due to the postponement of their Tuesday game against the Celtics could be a blessing in disguise. Markkanen and Arcidiacono's performances in Tuesday's practice were to head coach Billy Donovan's liking.

“They've (Markkanen and Arcidiacono) certainly got to get their timing back five-on-five,” Donovan said. “I thought both of them physically in terms of their conditioning was very, very good... There's something, I think, as a player you miss when you're not having that level of contact on a consistent and regular basis, and they've missed that contact. So it was good for them to have some contact today and some scrimmaging today."

Rotation rumbles

The stretch that featured Markkanen’s absence also saw Donovan unlock some intriguing rotation combinations.

An array of small-ball units with Thad Young at center that featured five ball-handlers, defensive switchability and a cumulative net rating of plus-8.2 (and often closed games, multiple times successfully). Daniel Gafford excelling in an expanded reserve role, averaging 14.8 minutes while Markkanen was away. Denzel Valentine succeeding in a spark plug capacity.

As Markkanen and the rest reacclimate, there will be an adjustment period.

“It's hard sometimes to get better, right, when your team is constantly changing,” Donovan said. “We're going to go through a period of time of getting Lauri and [Arcidiacono] back into the mix of what that's going to be like, or when [Hutchison and Satoranský] come back, any time you're integrating players or losing players, it's always an adjustment period.”

Upon Markkanen’s return to the lineup, Young and Gafford’s statuses will be especially interesting to monitor. Gafford once appeared relegated from the rotation as Donovan staggered Markkanen as the de facto backup center early in the season, but now looks eminently playable. 

Young, meanwhile, is enjoying perhaps his best stretch of play as a Bull, rivaled only by… Well, the last time Markkanen missed extended time.

He and Markkanen have yet to appear in a game together in 2020-21. In 2019-20, they shared the floor for 279 total minutes, and units featuring them sported just a 99.1 offensive rating (minus-3.9 net). Jim Boylen had little belief in the pairing, and playing time for one often came at the expense of the other.

In turn, Young was a persistent proponent of more minutes last season. While he’s averaging roughly the same number through seven appearances in 2020-21, his role has been prominent and his offensive responsibilities adapted to feature more short-roll playmaking (his 16.5 percent assist rate is a career high) and post-up opportunities, and less perimeter roaming (his 3-point attempts are down more than two per game).

If Otto Porter Jr.'s lingering lower back strain continues to nag him, perhaps the looming logjam in the frontcourt will continue to solve itself for a time. But eventually, Donovan will need to dole out 96 minutes per night between Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Porter, Young and Gafford at the power forward and center spots, while finding the combinations that balance evaluation and winning. Even Patrick Williams or Hutchison can run at the power forward spot. Keep a trained eye there.

Will the offense sustain?

Markkanen isn’t going to shoot nearly 48 percent from 3 all season. The question becomes: When that regresses, however much it does, can the ancillary components of his offensive game rise to the surface?

The answer for now, after a miniscule sample size: To be determined, although the aforementioned foul-drawing numbers inspire some hope of increased assertiveness.

He at least steps back into a unit that’s firing on all cylinders. When Markkanen, Arcidiacono and Satoranský packed into a Sprinter Van for a 13-hour drive from Washington D.C. to Chicago on New Year’s Eve, the Bulls were 1-3, and in the middle of the first quarter of what would turn into their second win against the Wizards. They’re 4-7 now, with all but two of the six contests Markkanen missed finishing inside a four-point margin.

Competitive level has been really high during those games,” Markkanen said. “Our pace on offense, we've been moving the ball really well, making the unselfish play. So that's what we've got to keep doing to keep winning games.”

The Bulls have scored more than 110 points in eight of their last nine games, and enjoyed myriad outbursts from Zach LaVine and Coby White as they’ve seized the reins to the offense. When Markkanen departed, twin season-opening blowout losses had pushed the Bulls to the 25th-rated offense in the NBA; they’ve climbed to 14th since.

Correlation doesn’t have to equal causation here. The blowouts skew matters, and none of the starters’ on-off splits are kind. But the impactfulness of Markkanen’s shotmaking will be tested by how the offense reacts to his return. So will his defense, given the Bulls’ team-wide woes in that department.