A year in, the Chicago Bulls' rebuild looks much further along than anybody expected when they traded Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves on draft night in 2017. Executives Gar Forman and John Paxson received widespread criticism for that deal at the time, but at least one of the pieces they received—that year's No. 7 overall pick, which became Finnish power forward Lauri Markkanen—looks like it will become a long-term cornerstone for the next iteration of the Bulls.
Even as a top-10 pick in the first year of a rebuild, Markkanen wasn't initially expected to play as much as he did in his rookie season. He was forced into a bigger role through circumstances totally out of his control—namely, a training-camp altercation between incumbent power forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic that left Mirotic with a facial fracture that took six weeks to heal and Portis suspended for the first eight games of the season.
The Bulls' plan had been to bring Markkanen along slowly while showcasing Mirotic as a trade chip (he was ultimately dealt to New Orleans in February). But Markkanen played well right away in his unexpectedly large role. He started all 68 games he appeared in, averaging 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in 29.7 minutes per game while shooting 36.2 percent from three-point range on 5.9 attempts per game.
Markkanen's individual production may have been aided by the extended absences of Portis, Mirotic and fellow Butler trade centerpiece Zach LaVine, who didn't make his season debut until January after completing rehab for a torn ACL. Markkanen hit a rookie wall in February, shooting just 39.0 percent from the field and 17.6 percent from three-point range in eight games that month, but bounced back and finished the season strong.
More important than his numbers was his skill set—he proved to be an ideal stretch 4 for Fred Hoiberg's uptempo offense, with the ability to spread the floor, rebound and finish around the basket.
Going into the second year of their rebuild, the Bulls have added two new frontcourt pieces to a rotational puzzle that could take some time to put together. They selected Duke center Wendell Carter, Jr. with the No. 7 overall pick, and he looks to be an ideal frontcourt partner for Markkanen. Carter's size and presence in the paint should allow Markkanen to play off the ball on the perimeter, and his playmaking ability and basketball IQ could further aid in creating good looks for Markkanen.
The Bulls' riskier addition this offseason has been Jabari Parker, who signed a two-year, $40 million deal in July, with the second year being a team option. After becoming a No. 2 overall pick (2014) who received no shortage of superstar-level hype in high school, Parker endured a four-season tenure with the Milwaukee Bucks that was marred by two season-ending ACL surgeries and a reputation as a ball-dominant, one-dimensional scorer. The Parker signing, as well as the decision to match the four-year, $80 million offer sheet LaVine signed with the Sacramento Kings, severely lowers the Bulls' defensive potential while complicating the role and fit of Markkanen.
Although he played small forward at Duke and early in his career in Milwaukee, Parker has been most effective at power forward in the NBA, which is a problem given the Bulls' crowded frontcourt and how Parker's defense and diminished athleticism following the two knee surgeries would play worse at the 3.
LaVine also figures to command a lot of touches. In his 24 games with the Bulls last season, he posted a usage rate of 29.5 percent, significantly higher than in any of his previous three seasons with Minnesota. He's likely to be their primary playmaker in the backcourt. How he fares in this role distributing for others, when he's mostly been a creator of his own offense thus far, remains to be seen, and that could affect Markkanen's touches.
Hoiberg will be faced with some tough lineup decisions. Markkanen and Carter, as lottery picks with complementary skill sets, are the best bets for a fruitful long-term pairing and so should play together as much as possible. But the Bulls didn't sign Parker for huge money to come off the bench. He'll be forced to either play out of position at small forward, as Mirotic did at times with mixed results, or take valuable minutes away from Markkanen.
The second-year 7-footer has been bulking up this summer, and that added strength would help him play defense at the 5. While he could get there defensively at that position, he's still a ways away from being able to play it full-time—another reason the Bulls are hoping Carter comes along quickly on that end.
The presence of Portis, who had his best season as a pro after returning from his suspension, complicates things further. Portis has found an effective role as an energy big off the bench with a much-improved mid-range game and even the makings of a solid three-point shot (35.9 percent in 2017-18). But Portis and Markkanen got torched defensively when they shared the floor together—that two-man combination gave up 111.1 points per 100 possessions in 330 minutes together, per NBA.com.
The Bulls' only solid defensive big, veteran center Robin Lopez, is not a part of the team's long-term plans. Going into the final year of a contract that will pay him $14.4 million, it's a virtual certainty that Lopez will not be in Chicago past this season—if he lasts to February's trade deadline. His rock-solid rim protection and rebounding are skills that should give him some value at the deadline on an expiring contract for reasonable money.
Until that day comes, however, Lopez is another piece Hoiberg will have to juggle. Lopez has started all 450 games he's appeared in for four teams since the 2012-13 season, and while his easygoing personality suggests that he won't publicly complain about coming off the bench in favor of a youth movement like the one Chicago is building, it's going to be a tricky balance while all of these pieces are still on the roster.
Even with LeBron James in Los Angeles and the Eastern Conference wide-open outside of the Boston-Philadelphia-Toronto tier at the top, it's still a long shot the Bulls return to the playoffs this season. Their core pieces are young, and there are too many question marks about defense and fit.
But in Markkanen, they have a player who will be a major part of whatever the next version of the Bulls turns out to be.