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Lauri Markkanen’s time with the Bulls saw him go from unicorn to enigma

Bulls coach Billy Donovan said on Monday that he let Markkanen know after the season that he would have an important role if he stayed, but the damage was done and the 7-footer wanted a fresh start. From what exactly? That’s the unknown.

The Cavaliers’ Lauri Markkanen will face his old team when the Bulls host Cleveland for a preseason game Tuesday night.
The Cavaliers’ Lauri Markkanen will face his old team when the Bulls host Cleveland for a preseason game Tuesday night.
Ron Schwane/AP

Most of the Bulls’ four-year experience with Lauri Markkanen undoubtedly falls under the category of enigma.

So it was only fitting that his departure from the Bulls this offseason was riddled with more questions than answers.

The 7-foot Markkanen is now with the Cavaliers, a team the Bulls will play twice in the preseason — including Tuesday — and four times in the regular season. But don’t expect to get full clarity on what exactly happened to him during his time with the Bulls.

‘‘I think it was pretty clear from what he felt, and he felt like he needed a change,’’ Bulls coach Billy Donovan said Monday in discussing the one season he had with Markkanen. ‘‘Why or what, he never really got into that with me. I personally felt — and I told him this — with the trades and everything that happened after free agency [this summer] that there would be a real important role for him here. But there were things he maybe didn’t want to get into with me that maybe transpired over the three years before that.’’

So the Bulls sent Markkanen to the Cavaliers in a three-way trade to grant his wishes. All that’s left is locker-room talk and speculation.

The Sun-Times reported several times that Markkanen grew unhappy with the Bulls under former coach Jim Boylen. He didn’t like what his role in the offense became and privately let the media know that, especially during the 2019-20 season.

Markkanen once joked about being a 7-foot decoy under Boylen and complained the front office and analytics department stripped him of his mid-range game.

But when Donovan took over, that should have meant new life for Markkanen. He was getting a coach who appreciated his complete offensive arsenal, as well as a system in which the ball moved.

In his first 12 games under Donovan, Markkanen scored 20 points or more in half of them and twice reached 30 or more. But a shoulder injury in February sidelined him for more than a month, and he returned to a team that was about to change. The Bulls added big men Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis at the trade deadline, and Markkanen was headed to the bench.

‘‘I don’t want to speculate or talk for him, but I don’t think there was any question that his rhythm got broken with that shoulder injury,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘Then coming back and having four to six games to maybe try and get back into a rhythm, then the trade deadline happened and our team changed, and he never, ever got back.

‘‘I always felt like what he gave our team, I really valued it. I felt like he and I connected and communicated pretty well, but I do think there was something there that he felt like he needed a fresh start and never really got into it with me.’’

Planning stages

Donovan said he wasn’t sure about a starting rotation for the preseason opener yet, but he did know he wanted to play his veteran guys some solid minutes against the Cavs.

‘‘[Get them] a good run because I think four preseason games is not a lot,’’ Donovan said. ‘‘It is a new group, so I think them playing with each other a good portion of the game would be important.’’