Wendell Carter Jr. closer to return, questionable for Monday vs. Pacers

Wendell Carter Jr. had a full, contact practice on Sunday as he inches back to his return from a quad injury. With Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. also out for an extended period, Carter Jr.'s return would be significant for a Bulls squad relying on the prolific scoring of Zach LaVine in recent games. The Bulls (10-15) play on the road against the Indiana Pacers (14-13) on Monday night.

I get by with a little help from my friends
Gonna try with a little help from my friends
—John Lennon and Paul McCartney

A little help may be on the way for the Bulls with Wendell Carter Jr. Sunday returning to full practice following his quad injury three weeks ago. The Bulls could use the help because their success recently has mostly relied on Zach LaVine's scoring.

As Zach goes so goes the Bulls?

The Bulls have lost four of six and seven of their last 10 and now are 10-15 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, which is barely outside the post season playoff play-in tournament. Though that still leaves them just two games out of sixth in the tightly bunched conference as the Bulls Monday begin a three-game road trip in Indiana.

But the strain of the injuries of three significant members of the regular playing rotation—probably three of the top six players—is having an impact. Carter, Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter average a combined 43.5 points per game.

Wendell Carter Jr. shoots over Indiana's Myles Turner earlier in the 2020-21 season.

It's been difficult to replace, especially among the starters with Daniel Gafford not an offensive oriented player, rookie Patrick Williams increasingly hesitant on offense and Garrett Temple starting recently for defensive reasons. LaVine and Coby White combined for a huge output in the victory over New Orleans last week. But often the result has been based on how much LaVine has been able to score.

In the last six games, LaVine is averaging 42.5 points in the Bulls wins and 27.8 in the losses. Among those last 10, LaVine is averaging 35.3 points per game in the wins and 26.9 in the losses. For the season, he's now seventh in the NBA in scoring at 28.1 per game and still having a remarkable season shooting.

Among the top 10 scorers, he's No. 1 in three-point shooting and in overall field goal percentage among the top 10 scorers, LaVine trails only the big men—Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo—in field goal percentage. Even as impressive as Kawhi Leonard was against the Bulls in mid range shooting in Friday's Clippers win, LaVine's two-point shooting percentage exceeds that of Leonard's.

"It's exactly what I expected," Temple said last week about LaVine. "The numbers he's putting up right now are amazing. So it's just a matter of us winning games and him leading us to wins to take him to that superstar level, him becoming a winner, learning how to win. He has all the tools and he's doing an amazing job scoring efficiently. Setting other people up, taking what comes to him. I think the competitive spirit was something I saw once I got on the team that I didn't know if he had or not. Once I saw he did have that I knew the sky is the limit.''

Garrett Temple and Zach LaVine during the fourth quarter of a Bulls win in Portland earlier this season.

But Bulls coach Billy Donovan remains cautious and concerned.

For the team to break out of this reversal, Donovan says the Bulls, of course, need LaVine. But not more of him.

"I think anytime when Zach is scoring, it's good for us," said Donovan. "I think it's really hard to expect or ask him to on a regular basis put 20-point quarters together for us. It's can we generate good offense? We're going to have to score through passing and ball movement. We may not have guys who we just give them the ball to create space and let them go play. We're going to have to do it together. And when we have done it together, I think we've been able to score and generate points. When we haven't, that's when we've labored and struggled to score. I also don't want to put him in a situation where he feels like all he has to do is score, score, score. At some point, other guys are going to have to step up if he's getting blitzed or trapped. I think he's one of the highest trapped players in the league when he's in pick-and-roll or screening actions, and then from there he's got to make good decisions because I think if we're going to rely on him to just generate and create shots all the time, one is I don't know if he could shoot a high enough percentage doing that, and two, I don't know how sustainable that is to expect him to score like that in those quarters where he gets 20, 22 points.

"It's hard to ask somebody to make up for Otto or make up for Lauri or make up for Wendell," said Donovan. "We've all got to do it together as a team."

Which, again, has been something of the irony about this season, compounded by the injuries. LaVine has read the game better. He's often been the point guard, averaging 5.3 assists to 5.4 for White. But he's also asked to be the aggressor on offense, and with the injuries the team has done best recently when he's scored early.

Zach LaVine rises up for a one-handed jam in a win against the Magic earlier this February.

Talk about your delicate balance.

Monday will be the first game with the Pacers since the Dec. 26 second game of the season when the Bulls were at their worst in the opening losses to Atlanta and Indiana. They recovered quickly and were about to reach .500 when the injuries struck. It seems like Markkanen and Porter will be out through the end of the first half, which for the Bulls now is March 3.

But Carter seems close to a return.

"Wendell completed practice today, all contact," Donovan said after Sunday practice. "Certainly I thought it was a step in the right direction that he was able to complete everything. Inevitably, we're going to have to put him in situations where he's going to have to get in there and start to build himself back up. When that timing is, I'm not quite sure. But he's certainly moving closer and closer to playing."

The Pacers are fourth in the Eastern Conference at 14-13 despite losing T.J. Warren and trading Victor Oladipo for Caris LeVert, the latter who had cancer surgery. Which has produced an opportunity for former Bull Doug McDermott to have his best season. McDermott is averaging career highs in points at 13.3, rebounds at 4.1, shooting at 52 percent, and it's the first time in his career he's getting at least 10 field goal attempts per game. McDermott even is outperforming Gary Harris, the only player the Nuggets have left from that draft trade with the Bulls.

For the Bulls until the reinforcements return, there's a lot of LaVine.

"The biggest thing I constantly keep expressing, whether we've had some of these players out or had a full complement of players, he has got to be aggressive," said Donovan. "Sometimes he gets into trying to read the game instead of reacting to the game. We just need him to be aggressive. He's done a real good job of that."

In newspapers, the number 30 meant the end. For the Bulls, Zach's 30s may be just the beginning until the troops return.