The center position is a key one. With starting center Wendell Carter Jr. on the shelf due to a quad contusion and a proliferation of great centers around the league, the Bulls may try out different looks as they adjust without a key piece.
The Bulls Saturday against the Portland Trailblazers return after nearly a week off without their starting center in an NBA that seems gradually rediscovering the worth and importance of starting centers.
"There's obviously some talented really, really good big men in the league," Bulls coach Billy Donovan agreed after practice Friday. "It's really hard to play without one of them because of the rim protection. The rim protection is so vital when the ball is coming downhill at the basket. Things sometimes go in cycles. They (76ers) are a big, big team. You look at the Lakers; they are extremely big. Even playing against Boston sometimes they play (Daniel) Theis and Tristan Thompson together; they are really big. So I do think there's always going to be a place for the big man in the game."
Just when the Bulls have lost their big man, Wendell Carter Jr., with a severe quad contusion suffered in practice. The Bulls said it will keep him out at least a month and perhaps into the March midseason break. It's a big setback for the 7-10 Bulls coming off consecutive losses to the Lakers and Celtics. But especially for Carter, who has been burdened by injuries his three pro seasons and was off to a career best start averaging 12.8 points, eight rebounds and 2.4 assists.
"It's definitely frustrating just knowing that I do everything in my power to make sure I avoid the injuries that I know 90 percent I have control over," said Carter. "And then that other 10 percent, I can't really control them. And those three injuries (in each NBA season) have been part of that 10 percent. I've just got to take it on the chin and keep going and just try to come back as strong and play as if I didn't miss a beat when I come back."
"I hate the label of being injury prone or always injured and things like that," Carter acknowledged. "That gets tough. At the same time the people who are a part of this business, they understand that all these injuries weren't because I wasn't prepared or because I wasn't doing the necessary things to make sure my body could withstand the 72-game season. There's people I want to please, like being out there on the court and helping my team win. It's definitely tough."
It's even more complicated for the Bulls the way the game is changing again in the NBA. For several years, especially with the success of the Golden State Warriors, the belief became that centers were becoming if not extinct, not especially useful. The narrative was that the ideal team makeup was a five-some of players able to shoot and score and switch on defense without the big men who were mostly tethered to the lane and the basket. No longer did offenses play inside/outside as much as high screen/roll and passes to the corner or wing for three-point shots.
But big men, some of whom can play on the perimeter, are again becoming vital parts of winning teams.
Joel Embiid is having an MVP season with the East leading Philadelphia 76ers. Rudy Gobert has been dominant for a Utah Jazz team surprisingly on top of the Western Conference. Clint Capella is putting up huge numbers for an improving Atlanta Hawks team. The combination of Andre Drummond and Jarrett Allen have helped revive the moribund Cleveland Cavaliers. Nikola Jokic is again an MVP candidate for contending Denver. DeAndre Jordan has been crucial with all the Nets stars. Dwight Howard has been a difference maker for the 76ers after being an important part of last season's champion Los Angeles Lakers. And even Jonas Valanciunas has been important averaging a double/double for the Memphis Grizzlies, who remain in playoff position in the Western Conference. The Bulls game at Memphis Wednesday was postponed for Covid reasons.
Which also creates questions for the Bulls, who are a small team, and especially so without the 6-10 Carter.
"If you look at Wendell's injury and he and Gaff (Daniel Gafford) kind of sharing, for the most part, those minutes with Lauri (Markkanen) playing in the five (center), you're going to have to possibly look at Cris (Felicio) as well in that group," said Donovan. "You're going to have to look at Thad (Young) there and Lauri. We do have Luke (Kornet), and that was part of the reason when we had left some guys back on some road trips to get some extra work in. It's because of potentially being in a situation we're in right now. We're probably going to have to do it with several different bodies. There may be matchups for us where playing Lauri and Thad together we may not have enough length and physical size and presence up front. There may be some lineups that maybe we need Gaff out there, Cris out there. It could be a variety of different things. I think we're going to have to be prepared to have significant and different rotations based on matchups and who we're playing against."
The Bulls get a break against Portland with their starting center, Jusuf Nurkic, also out injured. It's a bit of a revenge game for slumping Portland after the Bulls came back from a 20-point deficit to win in Portland.
Gafford started three games with Carter out and had difficulties, getting four points and four rebounds in 29 minutes against the Lakers and Celtics. He'll probably start again. Donovan, however, has used Young and Markkanen more extensively at center, though neither is a top rebounder or rim protector. Which might require more playing time for Felicio.
But with tall centers remerging in importance in the NBA, the Bulls also will have to determine if they can move forward with Carter as their center. Some successful teams have smaller centers, like Miami with Bam Adebayo. Though he's somewhat more athletic than Carter.
Carter has improved this season playing out of pick and roll on offense and both finishing at the basket and passing out of the high post. Carter also made three of his last nine on three-point shooting, an improvement from previous seasons. In his last six games before the injury when he collided with Denzel Valentine, Carter was averaging 14 points and 9.2 rebounds and shooting 55 percent overall.
It's yet another player and position the Bulls are analyzing.
"Steven Adams was certainly a vital key to our team (in Oklahoma City)," said Donovan. "You talk about Joel Embiid, obviously, being really good. You look at (Golden State rookie James) Wiseman as a young player; he's going to continue to grow and get better. I think the one thing you are seeing with a lot of these bigger guys is the skill set to step away from the basket and put it on the floor, shoot it.
"I do think without question that pendulum is swinging," said Donovan. "But it is swinging because the skill sets of these bigs have really evolved at the center spot. You are seeing them do more and more. Maybe a lot of what four men did years ago when people were talking about the stretch four man."
It's not a stretch to say the center position is going to be big.