We can (and will!) talk about point guards all we want, but the Bulls have other positions that need to be addressed this offseason – specifically: center.
In today’s era of position-less basketball, it’s quite possible that the team doesn’t have to worry about going in the direction of signing a traditional center, especially not with Wendell Carter Jr. around. But the team will need a quality back-up that can defend and rebound under the basket confidently. Obviously, Carter Jr. is positioned to be the future at center, the Bulls will need someone to eat some minutes when he’s off the court (and/or injured).
Last season, Robin Lopez stepped up in a big way after Carter Jr. went down with a season-ending injury – playing only 44 games as a rookie. Indeed, Lopez’s best work came after the trade deadline, when he averaged 14.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 28 games. During that stretch, he strung together 14 games in which he scored at least 15 points and put up seven 20-point scoring outbursts. There even came a point where the Bulls offense effectively ran through Lopez.
Bulls star Zach LaVine made it a point to highlight Lopez’s efforts, telling the Chicago Tribune the chemistry he had with Lopez was “off the charts.” Later lauding the veteran center’s screening ability and how it helped propel this team’s offense. That might not seem like much in a lost season, but anything that aids in development is good.
Perhaps as importantly, Head Coach Jim Boylen embraced his gritty style of play, going as far as to say that Lopez “is a guy who protects the soul of the team.” I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty high praise from a head coach.
Unfortunately, Chicago enters the offseason with center Robin Lopez hitting unrestricted free agency. Oh. So now what?
As an unrestricted free agent with a strong veteran presence that ended the 2018-19 season on a good note, Lopez will likely have his fair share of suitors around the league. And if a more competitive/immediately contending team takes interest in him, they’ll likely be willing to pay more than the Bulls (should be) – leaving Chicago with Carter Jr. and Cristiano Felicio as their centers. One is 19-years-old with a boatload of potential, but is still unproven at the NBA level. And the other is Cristiano Felicio.
Carter Jr. will return to a starting role, no doubt, but Felicio (and his 4.0 PPG and 3.6 RPG in 60 games) backing him up can’t sit well with this front office, even in the middle of a rebuild. The team could decide to draft a guy who can play center with their second-round pick like Jontay Porter (who we talked about briefly in Bullets from the other day). Although, layering one big project under another seems unnecessarily risky.
Another solution could be the idea of giving Markkanen more time at center. After all, the Finnish-stud is 7-feet tall. However, going this route would probably only produce a little less raw-product than drafting a big man. Markkanen has fancy footwork and ball-handling that makes him a productive player on the outside. But not only would having him under the basket restrict him from using some of his skills but it also just leaves the team a bit vulnerable. Toward the end of last season, Boylen even commented on how “effort and toughness” need to be consistent on the defensive end, and specifically Markkanen’s play at center was included in that.
Again, the Bulls might not need to drift toward signing a traditional reserve center. But there is a clear need to add someone who can pick up some minutes when their top guy is off the court.