Could the Bulls rebuilding experience lead to a new paradigm for NBA franchise resets?
It's perhaps worth asking with the latest Bulls injury news, that 21-year-old center Wendell Carter Jr. in his third season is out again, this time with a severe quad contusion that figures to immobilize him at least a month, the Bulls announced. It's the third consecutive year Carter will miss a significant portion of the season. Carter has played in about 60 percent of the team's game since the 6-10 270 pounder was the No. 7 selection in the 2018 draft.
But now with the Bulls it's a new medical team and a new management and another new season, and yet another significant setback for one of the team's young hopefuls. It perhaps suggests something more than simply bad luck or poor treatment or a difficult climate or substandard personal habits.
Because it's also been Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn in his tenure with the Bulls, Chandler Hutchison, Denzel Valentine and Zach LaVine. And so many of their top lottery contemporaries.
Like already from this draft Killian Hayes and Obi Toppin. Zion Williamson from the 2019 draft missed most of last season, Ja Morant was hurt this season already and there have been absences for Darius Garland and Rui Hachimura from that draft. From the 2018 lottery, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson and Mo Bamba have been out long stretches and from the season before Markelle Fultz, Josh Jackson, Jonathan Isaac, Dennis Smith Jr and Zach Collins. That can't be just "freak" injuries.
For the Bulls immediate prospects, it sounds like they're going to be small in the middle. There's a military analogy that might work: If they're big and you're small that also means you're mobile and perhaps they're slow. You fight the battles you can win your way.
Daniel Gafford substituting for Carter has had difficulties, so it seems like Bulls coach Billy Donovan may go to Markkanen or Thad Young at center. Both have played there this season with Young more often lately as a mobile "big man." Young is coming off one of the best games of his career with nine rebounds and nine assists. His experience and playmaking potential could give the Bulls an edge in moving the ball with the size deficit.
The Bulls next game is Saturday against Portland, which is missing its best centers, Jusuf Nurkic and Collins.
"We probably have to evaluate Gaff, maybe Thad," said Donovan. "Do you put Lauri out there, too? Maybe smaller. We'll have to look at it, maybe go game to game and we'll see how that plays itself out."
Carter isn't the most elite shot blocker and rim protector, but probably the best all around for the Bulls. Gafford is athletic, but he's been foul prone and offensively deficit. Markkanen even being seven-foot isn't much of a rim protector, nor is Young. But especially Young can run offense and is a clever scorer against taller players, which could aid the Bulls.
"Because of all the Covid stuff and having guys out during the course of the year I think this is something guys are accustomed to," said Donovan. "You have to stay flexible. I think you really have to have the mentality of, ‘Every day's a new day and you've got to try to maximize the day and win the day.' Find ways to help the group get better. Guys shift in and out of different roles.
"We played with Lauri at the five; we may have to look at doing some of that," said Donovan. "Thad and Lauri together. Maybe you have Thad and OP (Otto Porter), OP at the four. My heart goes out to (Wendell) because he's really worked hard to get prepared for this season. It's really one of those things. There's really nothing you can do about it; it's part of the game. I look at it also from the perspective we'll find out a lot more about Gaff. We'll find out a little bit more about what Lauri potentially looks like at the five spot. See maybe some different combinations of players.
"We're gonna have to do some different things because -- and I'm not excluding Gaff -- it's just I think everybody understands Gaff has kinda been the backup five," said Donovan. "We're gonna have to do some things by committee a little bit."
Perhaps the NBA needs a committee, meanwhile, to examine its personnel policy. Especially amidst rumors the players' association intends to pursue high school-to-the-NBA again in the next labor agreement.
The NBA seems to be practicing cognitive dissonance with these young bodies. They obviously are more prone to injury being less fully developed—players like Young and Garrett Temple rarely miss games—yet teams keep bringing them in younger and younger and once they're in the NBA treating them like mature veterans with extended playing time. Bulls rookie Patrick Williams has an unusually mature body for a 19-year-old, though it's still a lot to ask.
Williams has staggered of late, three of his last four games with one out with injury scoring five points or fewer and two points in 10 minutes against the Celtics Monday.
"Coming from the summer (with no Summer League) and first game of the season, there was no secret that not only me but all rookies around the league were going to have ups and downs," said Williams, who remains unusually sanguine. "That's why I kept praising my vets because they were on me. They were there to make sure that I'm good when I'm playing good. I keep that same confidence and energy when I'm not playing as well. Hats off to them as well as the coaches. They kept confidence in me so that allows me to keep confidence in myself. Just telling me that I'm a rookie and rookies go through it. We can't really harp too much on last game or what happened in the past. We just gotta take it day by day and get better." Williams has fallen to eighth among rookies in scoring at 9.4. He's fifth in minutes at 25.4 per game.
The Bulls experience with their young players with the high draft lottery picks has been concerning.
LaVine already was coming off ACL surgery when he was part of the trade for Jimmy Butler. LaVine played 24 games in that first season with the Bulls and has gone on to become one of the league's top scorers. His recovery is truly amazing and probably unprecedented given the level of athleticism he has regained. Still, LaVine has missed 24 games the last three seasons.
Carter has sustained major setbacks in each of his three Bulls season, injuries that seem without a pattern. Markkanen also has been out frequently, and not injuries requiring surgery. He's also missed more than 60 games like Carter, playing in about three quarters of those eligible. Chandler Hutchison has been out of the rotation at times, but also frequently hurt and playing in fewer than half the team's games. He's missed more than 80 games. He had surgery as did Valentine, the latter missing an entire season. Dunn missed about 70 games with the Bulls and still hasn't played for Atlanta this season.
It seems incongruous that these incredible athletes, generally regarded as many of the strongest and most fit people in the world, can succumb so often to injury. It is a rough game if not as rough as it once was. The difference seems to be today's players encounter these adult men in sporting combat when their bodies may just not be ready. It has to make teams think about whether the best way to competitiveness is to keep adding young players, the best of whom come to the NBA at 19. Soon to be 18?
"I'm not really quite sure what the answer is," admitted Donovan, who was a collegiate coach for more than 20 years. "Certainly when I first got here, just finding out a little bit more about some of these guys' injury history…I think the Wendell situation is just kind of like taking a knee to the lower thigh, pretty significantly and really really hard. I don't know what anybody could have done to prevent some of that, so I don't know if that was one I'd say was because of his youthfulness.
"Certainly getting back to play with a shortened training camp, I think everybody was concerned about, not only young players, but even veteran guys," said Donovan. "It was a major concern going into the bubble in Orlando, having a four-month hiatus, getting back to playing, giving these guys three weeks and then trying to get back to playing, how much more injury prone would these guys potentially be? I don't know if it's necessarily young players as much as it's a physical game, there's big bodies out there, guys are extremely explosive and these kind of things happen. But yeah, maybe for a young player that maybe is not fully developed physically that's really gifted and talented, the wear and tear over 82 games, could that be an overuse injury? I'm sure those things happen and it's probably something these guys all have to adjust to.
"I think you look at certain players throughout their careers, they've had incredible durability where they've really been able to play a lot a lot of minutes with very, very limited loss of playing time," Donovan noted. "And then you've had other guys where different things have popped up that have caused them to lose (playing time). I'm not quite sure what the answer is of why. There's probably a lot of factors that go into it. But it's something with the number of games these guys play you're always worried about."
And it would seem especially when they haven't played much basketball at the professional level. Culture is a popular word in the NBA these days. Could what teams like the Bulls have gone through with injuries become a petri dish to cultivate a new developmental culture?