It was starting to look like the Bulls had a developing star in Lauri Markkanen. The unflappable seven footer was first-team all-rookie in an impressive class, other first teamers being Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Ben Simmons and Kyle Kuzma. "The next Dirk Nowitzki" was building a case to top the class, setting an NBA record as a rookie for fastest to reach 100 three pointers. He had the genes, his parents and brother professional athletes and the shooting game for the modern NBA. Among rookies, Markkanen finished tied for third in scoring ahead of Tatum and second in rebounding. Only Mitchell among rookies averaged more three pointers made.
Could the Bulls have that rare five-tool star, a player who could shoot, pass, dribble, rebound and defend?
It turns out there a sixth tool that's becoming as significant not only for the Bulls, but for the NBA. It's availability. Because perhaps never in NBA history have players so regularly missed games, and not just because of this season's absences with the Covid virus. Injuries and rest seem almost every game to eliminate some of the top players. The Bulls didn't see a resting Russell Westbrook in their loss to the Wizards Monday. Luka Doncic sat out a previous game with the Mavericks. Paul George is skipping yet another trip when the Clippers are scheduled to be in the United Center Friday.
Lauri Markkanen is averaging a career-high 19.1 points per game so far but has only appeared in 14 games so far.
It's similarly troubling for the Bulls now with Markkanen joining Wendell Carter Jr., Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison out. Hutchison has an excused absence for personal reasons, though was playing little. Porter has had back problems all season, though he is a free agent and not expected to return to the team next season.
The concern for the Bulls as they prepare to host the New Orleans Pelicans and Zion Williams Wednesday is the repeated absences of two of their players they expected to be core parts of the team for years to come, Markkanen and Carter.
They still could be as their injuries have not proven to be congenital as much as inconvenient.
Still, Carter has sustained significant injuries in each of his three Bulls seasons and has played in 59 percent of the games of which he has been eligible.
"It's definitely frustrating just knowing that I do everything in my power to make sure I avoid the injuries that I know that I have 90 percent control over," Carter told reporters late last month. "Then that other 10 percent I can't really control them. Those three injuries (broken thumb, ankle and now quad) have been a part of that 10 percent. I've just got to take it on the chin and keep going and just try to come back strong and play as if I didn't miss a beat."
The 6-10 Carter was having his best season with career highs in scoring at 12.8 and assists at 2.4 with more pick and roll activity in Billy Donovan's offense. In his last seven games, Carter was averaging 13.9 points and 8.3 rebounds with a pair of double/doubles.
"I hate the label of being injury prone or always injured and things like that," Carter admitted. "That gets kind of tough. But at the same time as I look inside the business, the people who are a part of this business understand 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."
Wendell Carter Jr. is currently recovering from a quad injury.
And now it's Markkanen, due to miss two to four weeks with a shoulder strain from a collision Saturday against Orlando. He's played in 73 percent of his Bulls games with injuries in every one of his Bulls seasons with back problems as a rookie, then an elbow injury that cost him 10 weeks as a sophomore, a pelvic injury last season and now the shoulder. There also was a heart scare in there that proved just precautionary. So it's also being asked whether he is formidable or fragile? Bad luck or bad body? It seems so unfair, though teams have to make such cold calculations.
If a player cannot be counted upon, then how do you count on him? Like any worker in any job, if they cannot work it often doesn't matter what the reasons are.
"I try to look at the positives," Markkanen told reporters by video chat Tuesday. "With a shoulder, it could've always been worse. Obviously, when it happened I was frustrated and disappointed. I did everything on my part to not have this happen. That's part of the game, unfortunately. There are bumps in the road. But I do feel better now compared to when it happened. So that's good.
"They said two to four weeks and obviously we're hoping to be back sooner than that," Markkanen said. "I don't worry about that (injury prone label). I think people obviously talk about it. But if you really watch the game, they're all weird actions. Denzel's (Valentine) knee hits Wendell's quad and that happens. My shoulder, I bump into someone. You can't really control that. That's part of the game unfortunately. So I'm not really worried about it.
"It was frustrating when it happened (because) I felt like I was starting to find my rhythm. I was feeling good, so that's the disappointing part," said Markkanen. "Nothing good comes from just putting your head down and being sad about it. It's part of the game and I think it's something everybody has to deal with."
It's especially disappointing for the Bulls because Markkanen with a Covid contact tracing absence was playing his best basketball in two years.
The 23-year-old Markkanen was averaging career highs in scoring at 19.1 and shooting at 51 percent overall and 40 percent on threes. The promise of his rookie season seemed finally to be reemerging.
Through 23 games, Markkanen has played in 14 this season.
Markkanen was averaging 20.7 and shooting 52 percent in the nine games back from his quarantine with back to back games of at least 30 points for the first time in two years. Markkanen's scoring to complement that of Zach LaVine's was providing the Bulls with one of the most potent offenses in the NBA, top five in scoring.
Though Markkanen opted to become a restricted free agent this summer, he was proving his worth to the Bulls as a tandem with LaVine. But can they rely on him?
It's one reason LeBron James may finally be making the case to be considered the best. He won't get the vote in Chicago. But James' season is remarkable not because he is 36, but because unlike so many of his peers he doesn't skip games.
Just about all the top players do now. Kawhi Leonard never can be counted upon and has taken off part of backs to backs for years. Westbrook is now doing it. Paul George, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, though he is returning from a serious injury, and others now like Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid and, of course, Kyrie Irving. Not James, and he was the one whom most would have given a pass considering playing into the Finals again and a quick start to this season.
But James has been ruthless and relentless.
James is basketball's Tom Brady. He impacts winning. The Lakers missed the playoffs five consecutive seasons. Then James showed up and they're champions within two. And even as teammates around him are in and out of the lineup, James plays every game. He didn't always. Which was one reason it was easy to dismiss him in comparison to Michael Jordan. James didn't seem to have the same love of the game. Jordan never sat out, even playing in every game for three and a half years when he made his return to the NBA more than a decade after his debut.
Which is why James should easily be the game's Most Valuable Player, certainly this season. There are many brilliant and talented players who perhaps can shoot, pass, defend or dribble better. But nobody is proving as reliable. It's becoming in this era of the NBA—whether it is because of specializing too much as kids, building their bodies to breaking points, immature bodies not ready for the NBA or the comfort of financial security—as important a "skill" as any.
It may be why Patrick Williams is such an important draft choice. His powerful frame appears like it may be able to absorb and avoid the adversities that have affected teammates.
And now for the Bulls, they wait. And they have to hope it's misfortune for Markkanen and Carter the way it can impact the team's fortunes.
The sudden lack of size and interior depth proved worrisome Monday against a weak Washington team without Westbrook.
"Just a simple basketball move of lifting my arm got it again," Markkanen lamented. "I'm just disappointed for myself because I want to be out there with my teammates. I think I can help the team win. It's disappointing to sit out. As a basketball player and competitor, I want to be out there with my teammates. So that helps me push every day to do all the extra stuff to try to get back early and help the team. That's been my mindset every day, doing the best you can just to make it heal faster and that's all you can do."