“The NBA is a guard-oriented league.”
Modernized spacing concepts lead to wider driving lanes, making it easier than ever to be a guard. The trends are certainly changing towards skill and versatility over size and strength.
So, why are teams still investing in high-caliber frontcourt tandems?
This piece is the final installment in a five-part series here at TBW, diving into rosters that are building around two bigs. These teams are spending a lot of money and/or valuable draft picks on a collection of young frontcourt talent (under the age of 25) as hopeful foundational pieces while bucking (and sometimes, re-writing) the trends. Thus far, we’ve featured the Sacramento Kings, the Phoenix Suns, the New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies.
Complimenting each other doesn’t just mean how each player’s theoretical skills enable him to play off another’s strengths, but also how they can be on the floor together during crunch time. Tandems must be able to thwart teams that play only one big, or at the very least not be thwarted by them. In all earlier examples above, the presence of at least one non-shooting big has brought those concepts into question.
The Chicago Bulls are aiming to be different.
The theory of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Jr. together is that both are able to stretch the floor. For Markkanen, that is his largest strength and most of his appeal. It begat his nickname: “Baby Dirk”.
Carter Jr., on the other hand, is trying to course-correct his reputation as a potential stretch-5 after going 6-for-32 (18.8 percent) from three as a rookie.
The prize of the group is Markkanen, emerging as the best young Bull and the player their offense will continue to be shaped around. He’s a fantastic scorer and a great shooter, has fantastic size for a 4 and is a bit underrated off the bounce. He’s not a consistent isolation scorer or quite fluid an athlete to create his own shot, so he needs to be flanked by players like Zach LaVine to do the lion’s share of the creating.
In order for Markkanen to get his shot, coaches must have a deep and diverse playbook designed around actions for him. The Bulls are light on such things—likely thanks to their overall youth needing simplicity and coach Jim Boylen’s rather straightforward approach—and could use a few more sets designed around Markkanen.
But his ability to shoot on the move is unique for a 6’10” big. He pops after setting screens and can run off them, making him a difficult cover to the three-point line. His scripted sets are found money:
Teams now anticipate Markkanen to pop when he sets screens because his shooting is so lethal. To combat that, especially when he is slotted at the 4, teams switch ball screens that he sets, neutralizing his pop threat and keeping length on the ball.
For a player only two years into his career, Lauri has learned how to alleviate the pressures of switching defenses.
He’s added a really crafty roll to his game. At first, he looks like he’s going to pop based on the angle of his screen and where his body is facing. He’ll jolt to the rim and use his body well to seal his new defender, giving him a lane to the basket for two:
It may not look like much, but that’s where just the threat of Markkanen’s shooting is a legitimate weapon. As a rookie, 46.5 percent of his field goal attempts came from three. (Using a scouting report or defender’s instincts against them is how smart players leave their impact and great scorers elevate themselves to All-Star status.)
What’s also important here is the presence of the weak-side big. Each clip above has different spacing. When Markkanen plays the 5 and the fairly versatile Otto Porter Jr. is at the 4, the spacing changes to where a roll is unimpeded to the rim. When playing with another big, Markkanen needs an empty-side to operate and read whether to roll or pop. Otherwise a post-bound big will stand in his way and bring an extra defender to the rim.
That’s where Carter Jr. comes into play. Instead of banking on Alex Len to be in poor weak-side position like in the clip above, the natural gravity of having a theoretical shooter in Carter Jr. can create that room every time.
Lauri is effective against the switch in other ways than his deceptive slow roll. He’s a sneaky athlete in some respects, but has an old man’s game when he bodies players in the lane. He feels for contact and plays square; doesn’t try to finish off one foot when he knows he’ll face contact; instead absorbing it and lowering his off-shoulder into his defender:
When Markkanen plays against other stiff bigs, whether at the 5 or the 4, he’s quick enough to get past them. He isn’t great with his first step or his first bounce because he’s a little stiff and his bounce is close to his body. However, his second bounce is where he often separates. With a little more time to explode and a runway, he gains some explosiveness and quickness to get past his man.
Getting to the rim is easy at that point, and he can finish off one foot:
Here’s the next step in Markkanen’s development: creating his own shot and handling against stiffer bigs. Carter Jr. has a solid role as a facilitator and shooter, and has developed a knack for spacing out to the corners when penetration occurs. With all that room, Markkanen can either bully smaller guards or blow past larger defenders to the rim. Give him a few weaponized isolation moves and drives and he’ll be fine.
Where does my optimism around Markkanen’s face-up game come from? The flashes of transition handling he’s shown, particularly at the end of last season.
There are times when he will rebound and run, coming off either a Pistol action or dribbling through a drag ball screen into the lane. If these skills are transferrable to the half-court, there’s a whole new box of untapped potential here:
The potential of Markkanen is still largely untapped, making him a unique player that could continue a jump forward next year. From February 1st onward, he averaged 20.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists on below-average shooting for his standards. He got to the charity stripe at the highest rates of his career and made nearly 90 percent of his attempts.
He’s going to emerge as a fantastic offensive threat next season.
Carter Jr.’s potential still wins out over the disappointing rookie campaign, as the wonderful Cole Zwicker wrote for The Stepien earlier this week in much more detail and precision than I ever could. What Zwicker points out was the poor usage of Carter Jr., as the Bulls coaching staff took a stretch-5 and turned him into a back-to-the-basket player.
His woeful inefficiency in post-ups dropped his overall numbers, forced the teenager to engage in a great deal of physicality and the residual effects wore on the rest of his game.
Under coach Boylen last season, the Bulls were content to play through bigs like Carter Jr. and Robin Lopez in the post. Boylen’s philosophy for the young roster was to “crawl before you can walk”, slowing pace to a bottom-third rate and taking the fifth-most mid-range jumpers. Transition and three-pointers were seemingly outlawed.
This was the offense they lived with last season:
This is getting ridiculous. RoLo just pounding the ball while everyone else stands around so he can have a revenge game against a team he hasn't played for since 2012. What good does this do anyone? pic.twitter.com/HNcaSnaXVu
— Will Gottlieb (@wontgottlieb) March 19, 2019
Nothing against Robin Lopez, but no NBA team should be running isolation post-ups for him, even when they are up seventeen. Alas, the Boylen clash with conventional wisdom became clear as he continued to favor post-ups despite a roster not built for them. Zwicker’s analysis on the role of the post-up in modernity was spot on, even without the context of Carter Jr. and the Bulls:
“The ability for bigs to post up is actually integral in the modern game to both disincentivize switches and of course to make actual switches pay. But it’s more about having it in one’s bag as a threat, as a secondary option and to pass out of than being the hub of an offense or a player’s primary utilization play type.”
The disconnect runs deep between the Bulls and this line of thinking, and it’s the biggest threat to the long-term success of their core.
Any conversation about these two would be incomplete without mentioning the need for Carter Jr.’s defense. As this series has shown, the offensive prioritization of having two bigs that can complement each other’s skills is vital, but the defensive dynamics is more important. Markkanen may be the frontcourt youngster with the largest need for a defensive maestro to cover his mistakes. He’s slow laterally, not a vertical rim protector and doesn’t rebound well out of his area.
To cover for Lauri, the Bulls turned to Carter Jr. as the smart, post-bound rim protector that can stand on the backline and either challenge a shot or take a charge when Markkanen gets blown by. He’s mobile enough to switch on the perimeter and strong enough to play the post one-on-one. Great timing as a weak-side shot-blocker allows him to cover the mistakes of Chicago’s multiple subpar defenders, which is a tall task for a sophomore.
His collection of on-ball and off-ball swats should bring optimism that Carter Jr. will someday be a potential first-team All-Defense guy:
Carter Jr. is also profiling as a strong rebounder though, as a rookie, he and Markkanen did not share the floor very often. When they did, they surprisingly stood out more for their defense (45th percentile ceding 111.3 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning The Glass) than their offensive performance.
Sprinkle in Porter Jr., Chicago’s prized trade deadline acquisition, and this becomes a super long team with at least two plus defenders. That trio has yet to play a minute together, but their defensive ceiling is incredibly intriguing.
Back to the offensive stuff, Markkanen and Carter Jr. should be the perfect up-tempo 4 and 5, running to the three-point line and providing spacing and engaging in unique pick-and-pop actions. Their combined offensive value comes from sucking rim protectors and less-mobile bigs away from the rim to cede either layups to the guards or kick out threes to high-percentage shooters. Carter Jr. is there to add more spacing around Markkanen and clean up for him on D.
The Bulls roster, with rim attacking scorers like Zach LaVine, and two shooting bigs, almost necessitates that type of offense.
How does Chicago remedy this disconnect? They have built a roster of almost entirely high-efficiency shooters, an underrated Swiss Army piece in Porter and size in their backcourt. But those who have built the roster, namely John Paxson and Gar Forman, are actively discouraging what seems like an obvious way to optimize the parts.
Talent-wise, there is so much reason for optimism in Chicago. The skepticism comes from evaluating the organizational synergy and how it could hold back their blossoming core. For Markkanen and Carter Jr., in particular, it means the young frontcourt with the most upside could be flushed away by futility, far before we know how it fares.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, basketball-reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of August 7, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.