It's time for the Bulls to move on from Lauri Markkanen
Why they should aggressively shop him at the trade deadline
Should the Bulls look to trade Lauri Markkanen? It seems like they’re at least considering it. The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported earlier this week that they are listening to offers for him. With their options at this point limited to either trading him now, trying to manage a sign-and-trade this summer, offering him a big money deal this summer, or letting him walk for nothing, trading him now for any reasonable offer is their best course of action.
Markkanen has been a frustrating player in Chicago. He has had stretches where he has shot the ball extremely well and attacked closeouts to balance out his offensive game. But even in a year where he’s shot 40 percent from 3 and averaged 18 points per game, he hasn’t been very impactful to their bottom line. They’ve played much better without him, sporting an 8-14 record in games that he’s played and 11-9 in games he’s missed this year. That has matched a historical trend wherein he has been solidly in the bottom 20 percent of the league in impact based on adjusted on/off data over the course of his Bulls career.
Offensively, the idea of Markkanen early in his career was that he would be a three-level scorer. That has not happened at all. He can hit catch-and-shoot 3-pointers at a very high rate, and that’s about it. His post scoring has completely disappeared, he doesn’t take it to the paint nearly enough, and he has yet to make a single midrange jumper in the entire year despite Donovan opening up that area for the team substantially more than his predecessor.
Markkanen doesn’t seem to pair well with anyone on the Bulls. In his defense, his play would be drastically improved with better point guard play. But he also doesn’t make any of his teammates better. He often has huge swaths of open floor to make plays because of the attention that Zach LaVine draws, yet he is incapable of passing in these situations like Thad Young or Wendell Carter. He’s either shooting a 3 or driving into a slow drag-step layup almost every time. When he has tried to pass off the dribble, it has generally ended poorly.
The big value proposition from Markkanen offensively was supposed to be that he could spread the court for teammates. At his size, the theory was that he would draw opposing centers away from the basket, leaving openings for his teammates to drive for layups. But his post play has been so weak that teams have begun putting guards on him, completely neutralizing that advantage. At this point in his career, he’s no more valuable than his low-end draft comparison, Channing Frye.
If Markkanen’s problems were only limited to the offensive end, he’d still be a nice player. At a legit seven feet tall with decent mobility, one would expect his defensive impact to be pretty good. But he’s been a significant negative on that end, and the idea of playing him at center has been extremely shaky.
Markkanen isn’t glaringly bad at one thing, so his defensive warts don’t stand out at first glance. But he is not good at anything, and those small negatives cumulatively add up to a player that is hurting you.
Markkanen is not an awful rebounder, but he doesn’t rebound well for his size. He’s not lazy as a transition defender, but he does get beat just enough to allow one or two baskets to his man seemingly every game.
He’s not a stiff, but he gets blown by on closeouts a couple times per game and is just slow enough to get beat when he has to guard in space.
He’s not clueless as a help defender, but his instincts are a tad behind and his reflexes are poor enough that he is a half-second late to most contests.
He has good size, but his length doesn’t impact shots even when he does find himself in decent position. He blocks shots at about the same rate as guards like LaVine and Garrett Temple.
Markkanen’s health is also a big-time concern. He’s already missed 13 games this year due to injury. That matches with the 15, 20, and 14 games he missed in the previous three years.
Despite all of these weaknesses, Markkanen isn’t a bad player. He will be a solid rotation piece if he stays where he’s at. There is a lot of cap space this summer with a poor free agency class. Some team is probably going to give him the bag, talking themselves into his future improvement. He has legitimate excuses on why he hasn’t performed as well as expected, so perhaps the hope of him ironing out his issues is not too far-fetched.
The other side of this coin is that Markkanen has had way more opportunities than most players, and he hasn’t really done anything with them. Yes, former coach Jim Boylen misused him. His teammates have been mostly bad, and haven’t set him up particularly well. But Fred Hoiberg was featuring him in his offense, and Billy Donovan has given him ample opportunity to show what he can do. Despite his gaudy stat line, Donovan has seen many of the same flaws that everyone else has and has at times opted to close with other players down the stretch of tight games.
I look at a player like Christian Wood, who has succeeded in the Markkanen mold despite rarely getting playing time, thriving when he did play, languishing for four years in the G-League, and finally making it when given an opportunity. For most guys, nothing is given to you in this league. For Markkanen, he’s had a good-but-not-perfect opportunity and done little with it. The excuse-making for Markkanen has gone on long enough. Maybe he does improve. But it’s time to pay up in a few months, and that’s not a bet that I would be willing to make.
Letting Markkanen walk for nothing this summer would be painful when the Bulls have invested so much into him. They should try to get whatever they can for him now at the trade deadline and turn the page. He probably would be suited better with a team that has stronger playmaking, and it would also open the door to playing Patrick Williams more at power forward. It’s better for both sides to move on.