Markkanen and Porter Jr. probable to return vs. 76ers

First Blake Griffin, who signed with the Nets. Next, it seems, is LaMarcus Aldridge, who it appears will negotiate a buyout with the Spurs if he is not traded. Is Otto Porter Jr. next?

"I have no idea. To be honest with you, I have no idea," Porter told reporters Wednesday night after Bulls practice. "I've just been in the gym every day, trying to get my body back. Whatever is going on out there, I have no idea about. My agent would probably tell me if something was going on, but he hasn't said anything.'' Asked if his priority remains with the Bulls, Porter said: "Absolutely.''

And so welcome back Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr., the two injured Bulls and primary rotation players who have been out the last month. Both apparently are ready to play and could be in the lineup Thursday when the Bulls begin the second half of this unusual and demanding NBA season.

"We'll see how they are feeling," said Bulls coach Billy Donovan. "Certainly they are moving closer and closer to playing."

Both said they are ready, but the decision rests with Donovan and team medical staff. It seems likely both will return. To a Bulls team that has been better without them. The Bulls, 16-18 on the season, were 8-7 when Porter was out and 8-5 when Markkanen was away. Though Donovan was quick to say, and appropriately, that team wide development, especially with defensive discipline and playing together, has enabled the team to improve.

Though reducing turnovers and fouls committed would help, Donovan agreed.

Like most of the world, Donovan said he only watched some of Sunday's All-Star game, though he didn't say what he felt about the Royals and Meghan and Harry. Donovan said he did have some advice for LaVine, however.

"He fouled a three-point shooter," Donovan laughed about the curious enthusiasm the Bulls too often have exhibited this season. "I gave him a hard time about that; he was laughing."

The Bulls are at least smiling about Markkanen and Porter being back.

Billy Donovan has led the Bulls to a 16-18 record prior to the All-Star break.

The return of both should help, especially because Porter is the closest player the Bulls have to a facilitating wing, small forward. And Markkanen was scoring at a career best 19.1 points on 40 percent three-point shooting. Porter was averaging 11.6 points and 40 percent on threes off the bench.

It's a nice problem to have, especially with the NBA about to embark upon unusually rough scheduling seas with an excessive number of games and makeups being squeezed into these 10 weeks to the May 16 regular season close.

The Bulls seem all in for a run to a playoff spot for the first time in four years. They get a break to start with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons missing Thursday's game because of virus contact tracing after they had to miss the All-Star game. The game begins five in seven nights with the NBA calling off shootarounds this week to assure virus protocols with most players returning from travel during the All-Star break. Then comes a three in four nights for the Bulls the following weekend.

"It's going to be really new for everybody," said Donovan. "The managing of the numbers of games, the limited amount of practice time, how you balance the rest and recovery. I don't know if anybody has ever played the number of games we are going to play—and the rest of the league—in such a short period of time. I do think we really have to be flexible in terms of maybe there are situations where guys do have to rest or guys are unable to play. We have to keep everybody ready. That's my biggest message to our guys. I think you can look back on different points in time this first half of the season and we've had different guys step up in different situations that maybe had been out of the rotation that gave us really good quality minutes. We're going to need to have that mentality."

So welcome back Lauri and Otto?

How long are you going to stay?

Which is the big rumor in the room this time of year in the NBA. Even if it is a unique year. The trading deadline that always is in February is now March 25. Both Markkanen because he will be a restricted free agent after failing to agree to a deal before the season and Porter because he will be an unrestricted free agent after the season have been the subject of rumors and speculation.

Any move regarding Markkanen seems highly unlikely because he is on a relatively modest rookie contract, he's having his best season statistically and management declared the need to analyze his play throughout the season; and he's only played 14 games after his shoulder injury.

"I practiced fully today," said Markkanen. "I didn't go anywhere (during break). I've just been coming to the facility and doing rehab, trying to stay in shape, working out. I feel good to go. I'm planning to play. (But) that's up to coach. The team is playing really well. I'm excited to be back with them. Hopefully, I can help them, help us be even better. I feel like you're always your own biggest critic; just because my standard is so high. That's the thing that's pushing me. Like I said, I'm excited to go and motivated to help the team win."

Lauri Markkanen practiced fully on Wednesday and is "good to go" when asked about playing Thursday vs. the Sixers.

Markkanen figures to return to the starting lineup at power forward, where Patrick Williams has been starting with Garrett Temple at small forward. Williams should return to small forward. It should give the Bulls more size to help Wendell Carter Jr. at center, though Temple is a better defender. Temple, Williams and Carter has been a better defensive front court, which is a challenge for the seven-foot Markkanen that management likely wants to analyze.

The circumstances are different with Porter, who has played in only about a third of the games since he was acquired at the trade deadline two years ago. His latest issue was a lower back problem that came on somewhat suddenly, which can occur with back problems. Porter this season hasn't appeared to be in the same condition, perhaps because of recurrent injury issues after missing almost all last season.

He's had some brilliant moments, like 28 points and 12 rebounds in December to almost single handedly beat the Wizards and 19 points and 13 rebounds when the Bulls had their biggest win in the 20-point comeback in Portland. Which is why there have been rumors, which most likely have been speculation, that Porter could be a buyout candidate. He's the kind of veteran who is a good shooter and versatile floor player who would benefit a contending team. He's the kind of veteran who can win you a playoff game. Since he comes off the bench for the Bulls, top teams likely are floating possibilities to get Porter for a minimum prorated salary.

The Bulls have given no indication that either they or Porter are interested in a separation. And, in fact, the 6-8 Porter could be a vital player for the Bulls down the stretch of the season when a win or two might make the difference in making the playoffs.

Porter tends to be one of the more reticent and taciturn players with media, though he is professional. He's cordial, if unrevealing.

Otto Porter Jr. practiced fully on Wednesday night as well as Lauri Markkanen.

"Right now I'm just focused on the team," he said. "We get a big schedule coming up; we're trying to focus on one game at a time. Right now my focus is getting back out there to help the team.''

He seems focused on the team.

Porter was similarly elusive about his lower back injury, which he said was a mystery.

"I feel good physically," said Porter. "I've prepared my body over the last couple weeks to really get work in some games. Playing and getting hit, just getting physical in the games, certain things that tweaked it. But like I said, bending over, tying shoes, just aggravated it.''

It's not exactly the stretch run yet, but the Bulls appear well positioned in comparison to other teams, at least for now, with a bench that could run out Porter, Temple, Thad Young, Tomas Satoransky and Denzel Valentine to support the young core.

The next five Bulls games are home. But then 10 of the succeeding 13 are on the road with two separate West Coast trips. The Bulls medical staff has been one of the best in the league this season in helping players remain available. Though there's considerable serendipity involved. But ss Chuck Berry said, you never can tell.

"I just try and focus on the things that we have control over," said Donovan when asked how many wins it might take to be top 10 and at least a play-in team. "I think that me speculating of what a record would look like 38 games from now, it would be hard. All these teams could look totally different week by week with the number of games, Covid. So you just don't know. It's such a unique and crazy year I just think you've got to be flexible, focus on what you can control and keep an attitude of trying to improve and get better."