The Bulls need more out of Lauri Markkanen and Co.

Matthew Rago, Editor-in-Chief

The Bulls need more production out of their core players.

Lauri Markkanen, Otto Porter Jr. and Wendall Carter Jr. were supposed to comprise a playoff-caliber core for the Chicago Bulls. Instead, they’ve each played well below their respective ceilings in the early stages of the 2019-20 NBA season.

From the moment the Bulls drafted Markkanen with the seventh pick of the 2017 draft, he was identified as the potential heir apparent to Dirk Nowitzki.  As a seven footer with a smooth stroke from beyond the arc, the similarities were readily identifiable. Markkanen also possesses the strength and post skills to adequately complement his shooting prowess. 

However, inconsistencies have plagued Markkanen in the early portion of his career, as evidenced by his staggered scoring output throughout the Bulls’ first four games. After exploding for 35 points against the Charlotte Hornets on opening night, Markkanen was held below ten points in consecutive games. Since then, Markkanen has scored a total of 30 points between two games (15 points per game) against the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks, two teams with a combined three wins. 

Such inconsistencies are discouraging from a third-year player tasked with headlining the Bulls’ rebuild. By his third season, Nowitzki was consistently good. For the sake of comparison, a third-year Nowitzki was held beneath ten points twice for the entire 2000-01 season, a figure Markkanen has already matched in 2019-20. 

What is most frustrating about Markkanen is that the potential for greatness is obviously there. When Markkanen is on, he’s on. When his three point shot is falling, it opens up opportunities for him to penetrate the lane, thus allowing him to dominate from both the post and the three-point line.

However, it feels as though Bulls fans have read this story before. Remember Nikola Mirotic? At his best, Mirotic was surgical, dissecting his opponents with his elite marksmanship. However, Mirotic was susceptible to extreme bouts of inconsistency, subsequently rendering him expendable. Sure, Mirotic was capable of giving the Bulls 30-plus points on any given night, but he was just as likely to go 1-for-15 from the field the very next night.

While Markkanen’s inconsistencies don’t rival those that plague Mirotic, it feels like Markkanen is closer to Mirotic than Nowitzki at this point in his career. 

Nevertheless, despite his early season struggles, Markkanen hasn’t been the most underwhelming Bull thus far. That honor goes to Otto Porter Jr., who was acquired last season from the Washington Wizards in exchange for Bobby Portis Jr. 

After acquiring Porter Jr. last season, the Bulls looked like a different team. Noted for both his defensive prowess and 40.3% three-point field goal percentage (3P%), Porter was identified as the type of glue guy who would alleviate the defensive burden off of offensive talents like Markkanen and Zach Lavine. Still, his offense was imperative to the Bulls’ improvement, as Porter Jr. contributed 17.5 points per game (ppg) in 15 games with the Bulls.

This season, Porter Jr. has gotten off to an abysmal start. Prior to his 22-point performance against the Pistons, Porter Jr. scored a total of 29 points over the first four games of the season (7.3 ppg), shooting 4-for-19 from beyond the arc. I took Porter Jr. four games to crack the ten-point threshold, essentially handicapping a Bulls offense in desperate need of a viable third scoring option. Had the Bulls acquired Porter Jr to serve as a role player on a modest contract, perhaps his middling production would be excusable. However, Porter Jr., earning $28 million this season, was acquired to play an integral role in the Bulls’ ascent to playoff contention. 

Finally, Carter Jr., the Bulls No. 9 overall pick in last year’s draft, has been consistently mediocre. He’s yet to offer an offensively bad performance, but he has failed to stick out in the way that the Bulls hope a former top-10 pick might. Carter Jr. did have a bit of a breakout performance Monday against the Knicks with a 20 point, 10 rebound effort, but the Bulls need Carter Jr to consistently make his presence felt. 

To be fair, Carter Jr. isn’t expected to shoulder a heavy offensive burden. However, the Bulls must hope that he is, at the very minimum, a sideways move from Robin Lopez, who the Bulls opted to move on from this past offseason. Carter Jr. needs to assert himself in the paint, monopolizing the post and using his elite defensive IQ to disrupt opposing teams’ offensive game plans. He also needs to shed the self-perception he adopted when playing at Duke–he was Duke’s fifth option on offense–and take initiative on the offensive end. 

The Bulls needed an encouraging start to shift perception on a franchise that’s been mired in mediocrity. This was supposed to be the year that our key players’ maturation process led to tangible improvements. This was supposed to be the season that the Bulls took a step toward relevancy that has eluded them since Jimmy Butler’s departure. Instead, the Bulls have started the season 2-4 against an objectively soft schedule. It will be up to the Bulls’ core players to turn their season around. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like this team is playing with the same sense of urgency as their playoff counterparts.