It looks like the Bulls, carrying an eight-game losing streak, are changing their starting lineup for Thursday's game with the Denver Nuggets. But not because the Bulls are carrying an eight-game losing streak.
Rookie center Wendell Carter Jr., the only Bulls player to have played in and started every game this season, was listed as doubtful for Denver with a left thumb sprain. Carter injured his thumb trying to brace himself when he got tangled with Tyson Chandler running back on defense in the second quarter of the Bulls 107-100 loss in Los Angeles Tuesday. The Bulls fell to 10-34. Carter came up shaking his hand, which mostly went unnoticed as he didn't say anything and continued to play.
He had six points and a team high 10 rebounds.
Bulls coach Jim Boylen said Carter mentioned something at halftime, so he was taped and went back to play. He mentioned it again after the game and had an x-ray that apparently looked suspicious.
"He fell on that left hand and it's called a gamekeeper's (thumb) injury," said Boylen after Wednesday practice at UCLA. "Kind of fell on his hands. Kind of shook it off. Bothered him the rest of the game, but he kind of hung in there; he's a tough kid."
The team apparently wanted to be careful and certain, so Carter went for an MRI Wednesday morning while his teammates were practicing. Carter also mentioned some knee soreness, so the MRI included his knee.
"Just woke up a little stiff, a little sore (in his knee), but we wanted to make sure," Boylen added. "Because he was in the tube we thought we should MRI that, too."
The Bulls did not release any results Wednesday. But by listing Carter as doubtful with the NBA, it suggests the injury wasn't serious. Boylen is expected to provide details at Thursday shootaround.
"We might be forced into it," Boylen said Wednesday morning about replacing Carter at least for Thursday's game. "We haven't made those decisions yet. Just trying to get through this morning's workout and video and we'll get on the plane and figure it out.
Asked who was working with the first team at practice, Boylen was coy.
"Why would I tip my hand on that?" he asked. "We had a couple of guys work with the first group today. We've got Rolo (Robin Lopez). We've got Bobby (Portis). We could go small, we could go big. We looked at a couple of different combinations today in practice. We'll see were it goes. It can be a game time decision."
Given the opponent, it seems more likely Portis would start at center alongside Lauri Markkanen at power forward and perhaps switch off at times.
The Nuggets are one of the best teams in the Western Conference, though they are coming off a so-you-think-you're-a-serious-contender 142-111 home loss to the Golden State Warriors. Probably not a good night for the Bulls to catch an unmotivated Nuggets team.
The star of the Nuggets is center Nikola Jokic, a versatile 6-11 former second round pick who has been talked about among MVP candidates. He is averaging 19.7 points, 10.1 rebounds and 7.5 assists, the latter the most among centers. As a result, the Nuggets run much of their offense through Jokic, who also is a good three-point shooter. He'd be a difficult matchup often playing outside against Lopez. So it perhaps makes more sense to defend Jokic with a quicker, more versatile player like Portis.
Actually, Lopez seemed to have fallen out of the rotation with the return of Jabari Parker as Lopez didn't play against the Lakers, who used two seven footers. But with Carter perhaps out, it seems more likely Lopez would come off the bench. Though Cristiano Felicio was among a group of Bulls who closed the game strong against the Lakers.
Boylen was asked if this sort of injury to Carter is a reason not to think so quickly about moving on from Lopez, as has been speculated.
"Absolutely," said Boylen. "The other thing is Robin is a team guy. He has unbelievable character for the team, and he's a worker. Those guys are good to have around. We all know the business, we all know how it works. But he is a good guy to have around. He's a good example for our young guys, he's a competitive person. He's got a great soul and a great spirit. So we'll see how all that plays out."
Following Tuesday's loss when the starters for the second consecutive game faded in the fourth quarter, Boylen indicated he might consider some changes. Kris Dunn had perhaps his poorest all around game of the season and Zach LaVine had just 10 points, his second fewest of the season. Though Portis also wasn't seeing straight with one of 11 shooting in just 17 minutes.
But the concern Wednesday was for Carter, who is averaging 10.3 points while also second on the team in rebounding and first in blocks. Perhaps he and the Bulls were fortunate, though the Bulls offered nothing official Wednesday.
"I try to think about the individual first," said Boylen. "My heart would be broken for him if he's out for some time. That's the first thing I think about because it's your life and a big part of who you are. To be away from it is difficult, and then I think about the team. We've adjusted all year and we'd have to adjust. I thought the last two games, Utah and the Lakers, we finally adjusted from the trade of (Justin) Holiday. I thought we guarded better, people stepped up in their positions and we've been better defensively. I thought we struggled without him for the four games after he was traded. If Wendell is out, which will be a heartbreaker for all of us, somebody else will have to step up. We would miss his physicality, we would miss his character on the floor and somebody would have to fill that void that I feel we have done with Holiday on the defensive end."
So Boylen said there might be some experiments Thursday to combat an aggressive team like the Nuggets. Though way back in November, the Nuggets stole a win from the Bulls on a last second putback by Paul Millsap.
"Those are the kinds of things we've discussed and we've talked about," said Boylen. "Get creative and also try to be solid. I want to be solid, hang our hats on defense and rebounding and grow on the offensive end of the floor. The sad thing for him (if Carter is out) is at the offensive end of the floor he was growing and was more comfortable and seemed like every game he is where he needs to be and (knows) where his shots were coming from; it's frustrating."
But perhaps it could have been worse. Which it usually has been for the Bulls this season.