Bulls

Assessing Value of Bulls’ Bigs Virtually Impossible

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It’s hard for the Chicago Bulls to build a team around an injury-prone young big.

It’s even harder to build around two.

Admittedly, after missing 11 games with a quad injury, center Wendell Carter Jr. returned earlier than expected. But power forward Lauri Markkanen is still out with a shoulder injury.

Both were high draft picks – Chicago took Markkanen seventh in 2017, and Carter Jr. seventh in 2018. It’s clear the pair have talent, but it’s not easy to assess that talent, as neither can stay healthy.

INJURY HISTORY

Since entering the NBA, Markkanen has played in 184 of a possible 256 games. He’s missed time with injuries that include:

  • Back spasms in his rookie year.
  • A sprained right elbow in his second season.
  • A stress reaction in his pelvis in his third season.
  • A sprained right shoulder this season.

Carter Jr. has played in 103 of a possible 174 games, with injury absences due to:

  • A sprained left thumb in his rookie season.
  • A high right ankle sprain in his second season.
  • A severe right quadricep contusion this season.

The best ability is availability. It’s a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason. It’s hard for players to help their teams when they’re never on the court.

Injuries have occurred in games, in practice, and – in the case of Markkanen’s pelvis injury – for entirely unknown reasons. It’s unclear if it’s how they play or bad luck. Either way, it’s become tough for the Bulls to depend on their starting bigs.

To make matters worse, the two big men have only played together in 69 games.

That’s not even a full season.

It’s made analyzing Carter Jr. and Markkanen’s fit together a challenging task for the coaching staff. The pair show flashes of improvement, but only to suffer more injuries.

THE STRETCH FOUR

Lauri Markkanen was easily playing his best basketball of the season before he sprained his shoulder against the Orlando Magic. But his NBA career always follows a similar pattern. He’ll play well for several games, only to miss several more with an injury.

This year he’s averaging career highs in points per game (19.1), field goal percentage (51.4 percent), and three-point percentage (39.6 percent). Markkanen scored 30 points and made six three-pointers in two of his last three games before his shoulder sprain. He appeared to be finding his feet after missing seven games earlier in the year due to the league’s health-and-safety protocol.

People have compared Markkanen to Dirk Nowitzki, and for obvious reasons. In 2018, he matched the German’s record for the most three-pointers made by a seven-footer in a game. Also, later that season, he became the fastest player to make 100 three-pointers in NBA history. However, he isn’t just a jump shooter. Markkanen has always been comfortable driving to the hoop – ask Nikola Vucevic.

Markkanen’s strengths lie on the offensive end. He benefits from the space the modern NBA provides. But the modern NBA also requires more defensive versatility, which is something Markkanen struggles with. That’s why Wendell Carter Jr. has always appeared to be a good fit.

THE COMPLIMENTARY BIG

Defense is Wendell Carter Jr.’s specialty.

He’s shown his defensive abilities throughout his NBA career. In his first and second seasons, he led the Bulls’ big men in Defensive Rating. Last season, he was 20th in the NBA in Defensive Rebound Percentage. Although Carter Jr. isn’t the biggest, more robust centers don’t completely overpower him. And although he’s not the quickest, he can move his feet when matched up against smaller players.

However, Carter Jr.’s defense has taken a step back this season. He’s struggled in Billy Donovan’s new drop coverage scheme. His blocks per game have almost halved when compared to his rookie year. But Donovan has not blamed Carter Jr., instead, he’s criticized the Bulls’ perimeter defense.

Donovan has Carter Jr. playing more of an active role offensively. He’s the team’s focal point on that end of the floor – often catching the ball at the free-throw line, reading the defense, and making decisions. Plus, playing him as the roll man in spread pick-and-rolls allows players, like Markkanen, to spot up for more catch and shoot three-pointers.

But Carter Jr. can never seem to last a full season. It’s difficult for him to demonstrate his value because he can never play long enough to do so. A defensive center anchoring the paint needs to be reliable. Carter Jr.’s health hasn’t been reliable at all.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The Bulls face a problem. Should Chicago keep Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., both, or neither? Their production has been replaceable.

Thaddeus Young has had a career season when filling in at center. The Bulls haven’t missed Markkanen’s shooting, as Garrett Temple, Otto Porter Jr., and Denzel Valentine have all comfortably entered the starting five when needed. It helps that Donovan hasn’t been punished for playing smaller lineups.

The Bulls didn’t extend Markkanen’s contract before the start of the season. He’ll become a restricted free agent at the end of the year. Carter Jr. enters the final year of his contract next season, and it’s unclear what the front office has planned. If both can stay healthy for the remainder of the season, perhaps they can grow together and show Chicago their worth.

But they have to prove they’re dependable. Not just in terms of production but also in terms of availability.

Markkanen and Carter Jr. are players that any franchise would love to build around. Unfortunately, you can’t build around something that’s never there.

Follow us on Twitter @BullsLead for the latest Bulls news and insight. 

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About Charlie Liptrott

Charlie writes about the Chicago Bulls, and is a UK based NBA fan and freelance sports journalist.

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