Lauri Markkanen’s Breakout Should Alter Chicago’s Plans

If the month of February is any indication of what’s to come, Lauri Markkanen should get ready to represent the city of Chicago in next year’s All-Star game.

The seven-foot power forward finished the month averaging 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists on a true shooting percentage of 62.0%, an absolute elite number.

Markkanen’s rise has put the Chicago Bulls on a path to bigger and better things, which means their movements this coming summer need to drastically take into account his breakthrough.

Going out and making a similar signing as last year—when the team paid Jabari Parker, a natural power forward, $20 million to become their new starting small forward—should be a non-starter. (No pun intended?) While the Bulls will need more depth up front, it’s crucial it’s the correct type of depth, suggesting high-volume offensive players won’t be the best type of addition.

So how should the Bulls go about building this roster, considering Markkanen’s impressive development? To answer this in a more realistic manner, let’s assume Zion Williamson will not end up a Chicago Bull, as that would drastically alter their plans even further.

point guard needed

Feb 22, 2019; Orlando, FL, USA; Chicago Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen (24) celebrates with Bulls guard Kris Dunn (32) after defeating the Orlando Magic during the second half at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kris Dunn is a highly effective defender with great size, length and athleticism, but the soon-to-be 25-year-old point guard has yet to showcase the ability to string together into a sustainable product.

For someone 6’4″ with a chiseled frame, long arms and great leaping ability, 1.6 free throw attempts per game is frankly pitiful. Compound that with a three-point shooting rate of 1.8 a game in 31 minutes of playing time, and the picture grows grimmer. Dunn does not extract points from two of the most vital areas of the court, meaning defenders can easily play off him both as a shooter and a slasher. That neither helps the Bulls, nor Markkanen, in optimizing their spacing.

Chicago might find their new long-term point guard through the Draft if in a position to take Murray State floor leader Ja Morant. While not a dynamic three-point shooter himself, Morant does take 30.9 percent of his shots from deep at a 33.8 percent clip, while hitting 80.8 percent of his 8.0 free throw attempts per game. Both areas are drastic upticks compared to Dunn.

Feb 14, 2019; Clarksville, TN, USA; Murray State Racers guard Ja Morant (12) brings the ball up court against the Austin Peay Governors during the second half at the Winfield Dunn Center. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulls also might find their Dunn-replacement in free agency by taking a serious look at Ricky Rubio, one of the most respected veterans in the league. Rubio’s shot-selection has improved drastically in recent years, and he’s now sporting a healthy three-point rate of .367, which he hits at a 32.4 percent clip.

He’s not a knock-down shooter by any stretch, but by actively taking the shot and hitting enough of them to warrant attention, Rubio has turned himself into a player that defenses can no longer ignore when he’s outside the three-point line. (Dunn should be taking notes.)

Morant and Rubio are both incredible playmakers and multilayered passers, moving the ball regardless of where they are on the court. Morant is currently leading the NCAA in assists at 10.2 a night, and Rubio has a career AST% of 36.8, including six years of 7 or more dimes a game. With Markkanen being assisted on 68.7% of his field goals this season, adding a more natural playmaker to the point guard position, who isn’t an offensive liability, could see a further increase in Markkanen’s touches and quality shot attempts moving forward.

Furthermore, with Markkanen being one of the NBA’s most dynamic stretch bigs, having a point guard who can play efficient pick-and-pop is a downright necessity.

Even if the Bulls end up choosing Morant, they could still sign Rubio in free agency and have a veteran presence who would allow Morant to develop in his own timeframe.

Up Front

Feb 28, 2019; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Kyle O’Quinn (10) battles for position with Minnesota Timberwolves forward Taj Gibson (67) during the first quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

One player who seems to be an obvious fit? Former Bulls big man Taj Gibson.

The defensively-driven Gibson can back up both Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. while being conservative in his demand for shot attempts. Gibson, who’ll be 34 in June, is a steady veteran who, like Rubio, plays under control and asserts himself defensively while not being an offensive liability.

Gibson will take and make shots around the rim, as well as pop for high-efficient mid-range shots—he currently hits 47.2 percent of his looks between 16 feet and the three-point line—constantly presenting himself as an offensive option, though not a requirement. Gibson’s presence would allow Markkanen to be the primary offensive big while taking the more difficult cover on the other side of the court—a practice that will be duplicated with Carter Jr., leaving Markkanen with more energy to score.

Gibson’s prior relationship with the Bulls might prevent him from viewing them as a legitimate candidate this summer, in which case the back-up plan should be Indiana Pacers big Kyle O’Quinn. He’s struggled in Indiana but possesses a skill-set somewhat reminiscent of Gibson’s while also being slightly younger.

Big Picture

February 12, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Utah Jazz guard Ricky Rubio (3) shoots the basketball against Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Rubio, O’Quinn and/or Gibson should come relatively cheap. Big men who aren’t stars or possess a great deal of potential have not received a lot of money in recent years, suggesting Gibson could be had for a very reasonable number, pending his interest. O’Quinn signed for just the Room Exception ($4.4 million) last summer, after averaging 7.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks for the Knicks the year prior in just 18 minutes of playing time.

Offering a two-year deal worth $6 million to Gibson or O’Quinn is a fine starting point that shouldn’t close the door on any negotiations. As for Rubio’s worth, let’s look no further than Spencer Dinwiddie’s recent contract extension with the Nets worth $34 million over three years.

Dinwiddie’s better and younger than Rubio, suggesting the Bulls won’t have to break the bank for his services. A fair offer would start at $20 million over two seasons.

The Bulls have an estimated $19 million in cap space this summer, not taking into account draft position, which would alter their finances. Even so, acquiring Rubio and one of Gibson or O’Quinn should be feasible from a financial perspective.

The Bulls should generally be in decent shape with their two remaining free agents in Wayne Selden and Ryan Arcidiacono, as both should be presented with a qualifying offer, thus making both restricted and affordable. Both players can be plugged into lineups with Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Otto Porter, playing off that trio effectively.

This summer won’t necessarily be sexy for Chicago. It’s highly unlikely they end up with names like Kawhi Leonard or Kyrie Irving, so the focus should be on identifying players who will help accelerate the young core’s development.

Rubio and Gibson/O’Quinn represent such alternatives, as they’d allow the young guys to flourish while Markkanen becomes one of the league’s next great stars.

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