Exactly one month ago today, the Chicago Bulls were four days away from starting the third season of their rebuild, with high hopes of continued improvement and justifiable dreams of a playoff berth. But here, today – on November 19th, 2019 – they have the worst offensive rating in the NBA. Yikes.
A solid preseason performance (with a revised offensive game plan and some new free agents and rookies) provided a glimmer of hope for the city of Chicago. But even despite the team’s shiny new toys, the Bulls’ true path to success always came down to two things … er, uh, people: Lauri Markkanen and Zach LaVine.
Unfortunatly, reality hits like a chest pass … to the nose.
The Bulls (4-10) currently sit second-to-last in the Eastern Conference, with enough problems to pack the United Center, proving (again) what we all knew to be true: this team was only ever going as far as Markkanen and LaVine could take them.
Take Monday night, for example, when LaVine and Markkanen combined for just 20 points, but Coby White and Daniel Gafford combined for 34. The Bulls two 2019 Draft Picks (White and Gafford) arguably looked more like the Bulls dynamic duo than those two have all season. Put another way, two supposed All-Stars were outshined by a couple of rookies. Ouch.
In fact, the entire starting lineup, which is anchored by LaVine and Markkanen, was outscored 63-38 by the bench. The play from the starting squad was so underwhelming, head coach Jim Boylen had to consider closing out a close game against one of the Eastern Conference’s best teams with his bench. To be clear, he probably should have, but opting to sub in your “stars” isn’t the most absurd choice. You have to imagine a lot of coaches would do the same thing.
LaVine and Markkanen entered the game at the 5:04 mark, and the Bulls were outscored 12-2.
Not a great look and LaVine knows it:
Zach LaVine: “It’s going to be tough when your leading players – me and Lauri – don’t perform at our level. You can understand that – you’re missing a lot of points, you’re missing a lot of plays. We understand that. We have to pick it up.”
LaVine and Markkanen shot 6-of-28.
— Cody Westerlund (@CodyWesterlund) November 19, 2019
Of course, each player struggles with their own, separate demons.
LaVine has a tendency to revert to hero-ball with questionable decision making (and not quite enough to success to make it count). While Markkanen still lacks the necessary aggression and has seemingly lost all touch on his shot. When on the court this season, the duo is averaging -9.2 points per 100 possessions, which makes for the third-worst pairing on the team. While these two were supposed to be carrying the Bulls, they’ve done everything but.
After the game, Boylen claimed “we’re stilling looking for that guy,” when talking about who the team can go to when they need a bucket. Before the seasons started, we all thought the Bulls had two. The hardest part now is deciding how to confront this problem. I’ve seen many already pose (whether it’s out of anger or legitimate thought) that Markkanen should clock minutes off the bench. But … no, he shouldn’t. Not yet.
As the guys on the NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Talk Podcast point out, this would only hurt Markkanen’s confidence more. What the Bulls need to do right now is set Markkanen up for success. As many of us saw last February, The Finnisher has the talent to hang with elite talent in this league, and it’s simply a matter of getting him going again.
Specifically, I couldn’t put it better than Kendall Gill: Fewer three-pointers, drawing more fouls, and feeding him the ball in the post are all things this coaching staff needs to preach to their players to help Markkanen get right.
As for LaVine, he just needs to be smarter and promote ball movement (we talked more specifically about what he can do better yesterday).
In theory, a Markkanen-LaVine combo should be lethal on the offensive end, but the reality is these two starters can’t reliably stay on the floor for more than 30 minutes a game. Maybe the answer is just going all out. Tell both players to get 16+ shots up a game and keep on the floor for 35+ minutes until they fall into a rhythm. Maybe the answer is to stagger them in the rotation more, switching it up so they play less together. Whatever it may be, this season is going nowhere until it’s figured out.