Jim Boylen doubles down on Lauri Markkanen

The Bulls’ coach is confident his offensive system isn’t breaking the struggling foundation piece. “This system was installed and I worked on this system last year and this summer because I think it fits who he is,” Boylen said.

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Former Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21, slam-dunking against the Trail Blazers in 2013) made the playoffs with the Bulls in 2016-17, the Timberwolves in 2017-18 and the 76ers in 2018-19. He is averaging 20.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists for the Heat this season.

Former Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21, slam-dunking against the Trail Blazers in 2013) made the playoffs with the Bulls in 2016-17, the Timberwolves in 2017-18 and the 76ers in 2018-19. He is averaging 20.2 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.4 assists for the Heat this season.

Ting Shen/Sun-Times Media

The Bulls and Timberwolves took the court Wednesday night at the United Center commiserating in NBA hell. Both teams have been spinning their wheels since trading Jimmy Butler and firing Tom Thibodeau and now are facing a difficult reality: The winner of the Butler trade was Jimmy Butler.

The deal on June 22, 2017, that sent Butler to the Timberwolves was — like every trade — supposed to be a win for both teams. Butler was the top-15 All-Star reuniting with the coach who made him what he was and a coach Butler actually wanted to play for. The Bulls rid themselves of a player who suddenly did not fit Fred Hoiberg’s offense — whose fault was that? — and gained three developmental pieces with All-Star potential: guards Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn and forward Lauri Markkanen, the No. 7 pick in the 2017 draft.

The Bulls looked like winners in the deal when Butler whined his way out of Minnesota after one playoff run in 2017-18, while Markkanen was developing into a potential superstar talent — a 7-footer who could play all over the court, get three-point shots whenever he wanted and make them.

But the demise of Markkanen in coach Jim Boylen’s first full season is as painful and as obvious as it is surprising. The 22-year-old Finn is a shell of himself.Not only are his numbers down across the board — from 18.7 points per game to 14.9, from 9.0 rebounds per game to 6.5 — but he often looks uncomfortable and out of rhythm in Boylen’s offense. His 0-for-7 performance on three-pointers against the Bucks on Monday was Exhibit A.

Boylen says it’s Markkanen adjusting to a new system rather than a player-development issue. How can he tell the difference?

“What I look at is if he’s working and if he’s locked in, and he’s trying,” Boylen said before the game. “He is a guy that cares. And he wants to help the team win. And he tries to do that. That’s the basis of the thing for me, and his character. I know he’s a good basketball player. I know he’s had moments when he feels he could play better and we feel he could play better. We’re coaching him through those moments.’’

The fear, though, is that the adjustment could be such a shock to Markkanen’s system that it breaks him.

“I don’t feel that way,” Boylen said. “This system was installed and I worked on this system last year and this summer because I think it fits who he is.”

They say it’s a players’ league and a superstar league, and the Butler trade seems to illustrate that.

Since trading Butler, the Bulls went 27-55 in 2017-18 and 22-60 in an awkward tanking season in 2018-19 and are 17-29, with only one victory over a team with a winning record — the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard, Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley.

Butler meanwhile has been to the playoffs with the Bulls, Timberwolves and 76ers in consecutive seasons and has the Heat on pace for 57 wins — more than they had in LeBron James’ final season in Miami in 2013-14.

So, as if there were any doubt, we have a winner in this trade. And his name is Jimmy Butler.

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