In the midst of a global pandemic and an NBA suspension, Finnish podcast Urheilucast hosted a two hour show with Bulls star forward Lauri Markkanen where they touched on a range of topics certainly worth mentioning.
Starting at the beginning of this season, Jim Boylen installed a time clock in the weight room of the Bulls' training facility. Most places haven't had their employees literally punch into work in decades, however the Bulls decided to do things a little differently. They really wanted to stand out this season.
Zach LaVine spoke on the early season antics back in October, saying that Boylen does a lot of "quirky things" that makes the team experience extremely different. Boylen had the clock custom made in white and red colors, and each player had a custom card with their own name on it. He told The Athletic that he wants the guys to "punch into work" and said that it reminds of him of when he worked at a Cadillac factory from age 18 to 21.
When host Esko Seppänen asked Markkanen about Boylen installing the time clock, he chuckled and replied with "from what I understand, this was the norm at like factories back in the day? I guess it did what it was supposed (to do): Guys came in early. Usually it was the old guys telling the rookies to go punch in everybody's time cards though."
The time clocks didn't improve the on court product this season, as one area of concern stressed by many following the Chicago Bulls was the lack of touches Markkanen was getting throughout games.
The Bulls' offense this season was supposed to consist of swift ball movement and a lot of different guys handling the ball either in a set or transition - however that idea of a successful modern day NBA offense did not play out as successfully as it was envisioned.
Injuries piled up as the games progressed, and the Bulls realistically did not have the right personnel to be taking a lot of threes and moving the ball consistently. They had very few capable shooters and lacked a point guard who could create dribble penetration while being able to hit cutters and open wing shooters. The Bulls' 27th ranked offense was incredibly disappointing. They ranked 23rd in assists per game, while ranking 5th in turnovers.
Why was it so disappointing? Because Lauri Markkanen struggled to get in a groove when healthy for many reasons. Some on these were on him, some on coaching.
His shot attempts went down considerably this season from 15.3 in year two, to 11.8 in year three, and he would often find himself tucked away in a corner and would sometimes not even be on the floor down the stretch during critical moments. He'd be taking a lot of threes while barely getting to the rim which hurt his efficiency. Markkanen was 42.5% from the field and a mere 34.4% from three - both being career lows.
When asked about his lack of involvement in the offense this season, Markkanen told Seppänen "I had 80 touches per game the past two seasons, this season the touches dropped to 40. Don't get me wrong, I had some plays drawn with me in mind, but it's just different. When I spoke with Jim [Boylen], we talked about how I should concentrate on getting rebounds and then leading the fast break. But it's just really hard getting 40 defensive rebounds."
Obviously questioning Markkanen's lack of aggression to crash the glass consistently is fair, but you have to look at the bigger picture. The crazy thing about Boylen's response to Markkanen is that more often than not it was almost impossible for him to even pull in 10+ rebounds a night this season. The trap heavy pick-and-roll defense hurt rebounding opportunities as the Bulls' bigs would often find themselves guarding the perimeter which limited chances of consistently boxing out opponents.
The Bulls were the worst rebounding team in the league due to Boylen's defensive strategy, even with boasting one of the tallest starting lineups with an average height of 6'7".
For Chicago to become a better rebounding team and for Markkanen to pull down more boards, a smarter alternative to the trap (or blitz) to get bigs in better rebound position would be to either ice ball screens or to consistently run a drop coverage. The latter of which being something the Milwaukee Bucks have mastered over recent years.
Despite the league being shut down since March, the Bulls have had all of the national media attention for a rare change. Obviously Michael Jordan's 'The Last Dance' recently concluded, but the Bulls also completely revamped their front office by firing Gar Forman, reassigning John Paxson, and hiring Arturas Karnisovas to lead the ship.
It was reported that Bulls players are extremely upbeat about the recent changes while completely buying in to new regime's philosophies about building a winning team. When asked about the new look Bulls, Markkanen was thrilled. "Their work speaks for itself. I can't describe how excited I am."
Markkanen is contract eligible this offseason, but considering he had a down year to go with a lowered salary cap due to COVID-19, it would be unlikely him and the Bulls come to an agreement. He still has one year left on his rookie deal before becoming a restricted free agent, however Markkanen did make it clear about his love for Chicago. "I want to stay in Chicago and sign an extension (with the Bulls), no question. I love this city."
Setting a fair price this offseason would be challenging for both parties, but assuming Markkanen has a bounce back fourth season and plays at a near All-Star level, he could potentially become the highest paid Bull on the roster once Otto Porter Jr.'s $28.5 million dollar player option expires at the conclusion of the 2020-21 season.
The biggest question surrounding the NBA is whether or not they will resume the 2019-20 season and try to crown a champion. Possibilities surfaced over the last week of a potential season restart, while other rumors suggest teams will play a handful of regular season games at a neutral location (reportedly Disney World) before beginning a full post-season.
Marc Stein of the New York Times said the league will "exhaust every last bit of hope" before pulling the plug on next season. NBA superstars such as LeBron James are eager to resume the season in hopes of an NBA championship. "As soon as it’s safe we would like to finish our season. I’m ready and our team is ready. Nobody should be canceling anything."
Unlike the contending Lakers, the Chicago Bulls are in a completely different situation. If the league did return, their main focus presumably would be to prepare for next season by improving team chemistry while vying for a top draft pick. Markkanen was asked about a possible return, and while he does think the league will return, he shared a relatively different approach to LeBron.
"Looking up from the bottom of the Eastern Conference, it's pretty easy to say the NBA should just come back next season. Every training camp like 3 or 4 of us get injured and that's after everyone has been training and getting ready the whole summer. How many ankles are gonna roll and how many quads are gonna be pulled, if we resume after not being able to do anything for two months? But obviously I love to play this game more than anything, I just hope if we come back that we get the time to get ready." He did finish by saying: "I think the NBA will find a way to come back this summer."
For now, all the players can do is sit back and wait to see how the 2019-20 campaign plays out. For the new look Bulls front office however, its continuing on with evaluating the organization from top to bottom, which includes players, coaches, and trainers.
Thankfully for them though, they have an enthusiastic Lauri Markkanen waiting around for a new contract to stay in the Windy City.