Sam Smith: Both Lauri Markkanen and the Bulls benefit from parting ways

Markkanen averaged 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in his four seasons with the Bulls.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later

Body

The NBA's box score for interpreting who "won" a trade is which team got the best player. That was the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Bulls' Sunday announcement of the three-way trade that sent former All-Rookie first team Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen to the Cavaliers.

The Bulls received high flying Portland small forward Derrick Jones Jr., a 2022 protected first round pick from the Trail Blazers and a 2023 Denver second round from Cleveland. The Trail Blazers acquired Cleveland forward Larry Nance Jr.

But savvy management also understands there are other ways to evaluate a transaction. There's no problem trading Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce or in the NFL years back Hershel Walker if the spare parts and future possibilities can enhance your team. If you can improve, who really cares what the other guy does? Especially if you can also beat them.

It's unlikely the future draft picks the Bulls acquired or Jones is going to become a star.

But like Bulls Hall of Fame executive Jerry Krause used to opine, there is addition by subtraction.

Lauri Markkanen

Lauri Markkanen averaged 15.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in his four seasons with the Bulls.

Perhaps in the short term of this season the 24-year-old Markkanen could have helped the Bulls, who are thin at backup power forward and like every other NBA team never can have enough three-point shooting. But as an unrestricted free agent, the Bulls are clearing up a potentially unnecessary internal distraction. Not that the soft spoken Markkanen ever would be. But where's Lauri going and when becomes a storyline the day the team lines up for late September media day. Perhaps it doesn't upset the chemistry as Markkanen always has been team-first, perhaps often to his personal detriment. But enough mentions no matter the veracity can end up with a guy storming a Georgetown pizza place.

Markkanen, predictably, showed his class with this Instagram message to Chicago fans with news of the trade and his new four-year contract with the Cavaliers estimated to be $67 million. Which buys a lot of Lihapullat (Finnish meat balls).

"Thank you Chicago. You will always have a very special place in my and my family's hearts. I loved playing and living in this city, meeting fans and raising a family in West Loop. Thank you to the Bulls organization for taking a chance on me and helping me achieve one of my dreams of playing in the NBA. A huge thank you to all the people in the organization who are behind the scenes and who helped me grow as a person and a player. There have been many highs and lows, some great moments and some disappointments, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. Now it's time for a new adventure. Cleveland, my family I can't wait to get there and get to work!!"

There's financial minutiae that could benefit the Bulls in future transaction. And credit this new front office for the kind of creativity and boldness that should make that useful. Now it's not only me proposing trades. My work is done. Assets are valuable. But you have to use them.

The draft picks recover some of those surrendered in trades to acquire the All-Stars, Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan, to bookend Zach LaVine and provide the Bulls the three scoring options successful NBA teams generally require these days. The 6-5 Jones is a potential long-armed plus defender to go along with the reserve additions of defenders Alex Caruso and Tony Bradley to balance the offense of the presumed starting unit.

As the maxim goes, you can't win without defense. But only if you can score enough in this NBA. It's like those who say in golf that putting is 90 percent of the game. Unless, of course, it takes you three to reach the green.

Today's NBA, at least the qualifying part to get to the playoffs and advance, is about offense. It's one reason a team like Portland always fall short. They have two scorers. You can defend two. You can't defend three. Which the Bulls now have. It's why there's a chance since the first time in recently.

I'm not discounting defense, but the NBA virtually legislated it out, especially in the regular season. They say this season they'll reverse that ridiculous trend of offensive players throwing themselves into defenders and getting foul calls. We'll see. It was wonderful to watch the Olympics and see the NBA players try that and get these blank looks from the officials. The slot machines register too fast in the NBA casino to calculate the odds. Teams just keep pulling that handle with threes and jumpers, and you better be able to match that. Finally, the Bulls can, which is what the hope and optimism is all about.

But then why not Lauri?

After all, he was one of the premier young scorers in the NBA, Still averaging 15.6 per game for his career even with injuries, struggles and benching the last two seasons. He was a high lottery pick, No. 7 overall from Minnesota in the 2017 Jimmy Butler trade along with LaVine and Kris Dunn. The Cavs are smart. Forget having too many big guys. Rebuilding is taking chances on talented players who stumbled early. Remember, No. 3 overall pick Chauncey Billups become a seven-time All-Star once he got to his fifth team.

Lauri Markkanen

Markkanen an All-Star? Remember, we all thought he would be averaging 18.7 points and nine rebounds in his sophomore season and being in debates about who should have been No. 1 in the 2017 draft, Markkanen, Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell. With apologies to Gertrude Stein, there's a there there. Markkanen has a lot of the kind of talent that matters in the NBA these days. He could average 20 this season if Collin Sexton lets him. It shouldn't matter a bit to the Bulls.

Markkanen obviously was not in the team's plans with 20-year-old Patrick Williams elbowing him out of power forward. Markkanen wanted to start and play a lot; the Bulls didn't have that anymore for him. He would be an unrestricted free agent able to leave without any compensation for the Bulls, though the way new management manipulated free agency this summer you wouldn't put it past them to get LeBron if LA's mask mandate becomes too restrictive. Or at least Bronny.

Though Markkanen's history with the Bulls perhaps was more instructive. There seems to be an edge to most of the players being added to the current Bulls roster. Markkanen's edges were smoother. You need that, also. After all, Vucevic isn't Dwight Howard.

But the end of Markkanen's tenure with the Bulls probably can be traced back to the hiring of coach Jim Boylen. Not to blame Boylen because your success and survival is, in the end, up to you. And Markkanen did prove frail, if not unwilling.

Markkanen missed an average of 20 games per season with back problems, a heart scare, the usual ankle stuff, several freak occurrences like last season's shoulder injury and a health and safety exposure last season for further frustration. He actually was having a great season amidst all that in 2020-21, averaging about 18 points and shooting 48 percent on threes before the protocols and seven games out and then averaging 20 with improving team defense in the next 10 before the shoulder. By the time he was back, the Bulls were eying Daniel Theis and coach Billy Donovan was seeing Markkanen on the bench. Markkanen then had a run of 13 of 21 games failing to score in double figures with a zero, a two and a three in there. His next address was being planned. By everyone.

He didn't fit the profile anymore. He could have, but that wasn't him.

Markkanen's statistical decline traces back to Boylen's replacement of Fred Hoiberg. Not immediately as Markkanen actually had the best run of his career under Boylen in February 2019, averaging 26.5 points and 12.6 rebounds in an 11-game span before being wiped out for most of the rest of the season playing 54 minutes in that four-overtime win in Atlanta.

But Boylen was finishing up much of what Hoiberg started with a spaced and speedy offense. Left to his own devices and summer to scheme, Boylen returned with his plan. When a change is made, the result is generally to do the opposite. Hoiberg's team was regarded as not being tough and physical enough, lacking defensive stamina and aggression. Boylen, who took a football mentality into basketball from the way he competed as a small college player, seemed ideal for the response. It's why he loved playing guys like Shaquille Harrison and Ryan Arcidiacono. It's what that "Chicago across your chests" thing was about, the Monsters of the Midway, the blue-collar Chicago ethic. You know, rejuvenation, rebirth; all that...

The seven-foot Lauri didn't fit that mold. So he was assigned to the perimeter; make shots. Heck, he still was in the game. But LaVine didn't fit that mold, either, to Boylen. Though Zach broke molds.

From the start, Boylen wasn't a fan of LaVine's. But that also was the difference, and why LaVine is here and Markkanen isn't.

Remember, a few games after Boylen took over the Bulls lost to Boston by 56 points and Boylen called a practice for the next day after a back to back. Boylen had coached under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio and wanted to bring some of those get tough, motivational messages to the "soft" Bulls. It likely was his charge. He'd contributed to that disaster benching all the starters in a tactic Popovich occasionally attempted. Though not in his first season.

Players were texting back and forth about what to do. It came out as a proposed mutiny, which it never was, and LaVine supposedly was the ring leader. Which he wasn't. It all went away as Boylen said it merely was a test. But it was early next season when Boylen in a bad loss singled out LaVine for defensive errors. It seemed clear the coach didn't believe in LaVine or Markkanen.

The difference was LaVine never let it bother him. He was the ‘I'll show you' guy. Say what you want about LaVine, he was going to score and attack the basket and play the way he knew how. Markkanen was told to hang around the perimeter and wait for the ball. He obeyed. He always did as he was told. Everyone liked Lauri.

Zach went and got it, and he scored 49 points and had 13 threes, actually right after Boylen had blamed him for those alleged defensive errors. As if you could tell with that Bulls roster. He then went on a run of 13 games averaging almost 30 points and shooting 42 percent on threes.

LaVine did remain healthier than Markkanen, remarkably considering LaVine had ACL knee surgery. And Markkanen generally returned from his injuries before the doctors said he would. But Markkanen also was the guy who tried to follow the rules and do the right thing. But it doesn't always work that way in sports and life.

Sometimes you have to step out and show who you are and what you can do. Like the coach screaming for the guy not to shoot until he makes one and gets the pat on the butt.

Zach demanded his pat on the butt because of who he was. Lauri got the kick in the rear.

Markkanen may yet find his ideal environment and be a success. It couldn't be in Chicago any longer. Both are likely better moving forward.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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