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Are the Bulls better without forward Lauri Markkanen?

The 7-3 record over the last 10 games without Markkanen is arguably some of the best basketball the organization has played in years. So is it time to seriously start thinking about moving on from the 7-footer? Coach Billy Donovan gave his opinion on Thursday.

“I still think he’s an important piece to our team, an important guy on our team,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said of the injured Lauri Markkanen.
“I still think he’s an important piece to our team, an important guy on our team,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said of the injured Lauri Markkanen.
Nam Y. Huh/AP

Lauri Markkanen’s injuries used to have a feeling of debilitation to them. When the versatile Bulls big man would be sidelined

for a period of time, it was as if one of the pillars holding up the roof had crumbled. The gloom would only dissipate upon his return.

But as the last 10 games have shown, this isn’t 2019 anymore.

Since Markkanen was sidelined three weeks ago with a sprained right shoulder, the Bulls have played arguably some of their best basketball in years.

Sure, their 7-3 record without Markkanen hasn’t exactly come against the NBA’s elite, but wins over the Pacers and Magic on the road and over the Pelicans and Kings at home were still impressive — as is their plus-55 point differential in that 10-game span.

When Markkanen missed time in late December while in the NBA health and safety protocol, the Bulls went 3-4 in his absence, including losses to the Kings, Lakers and Clippers on a West Coast trip.

Ahead of the All-Star break next week, and with rumors heating up as the March 25 trade deadline nears, coach Billy Donovan was asked if he and the Bulls feel differently about Markkanen moving forward.

“I don’t. I don’t,” Donovan said after an afternoon practice Thursday. “We’ve had to learn to play without him. [But] I don’t look at him differently at all. I still think he’s an important piece to our team, an important guy on our team. I think he’s worked really hard to get himself back healthy, and certainly there’s not much he can do other than the rehab piece of it. The body is going to have to heal that injury, but I still feel he’s an important component to our team and a valuable piece to our team.”

Where it gets interesting is that Markkanen, now a possible trade chip, couldn’t get in the same ballpark with the Bulls in December on a contract extension. If he stays with the team through the trade deadline, he’s headed to restricted free agency in the offseason, allowing the market to set his price.

No decisions have been made on his future, and he still has time to change minds one way or the other, with the hope he returns after the break. But it’s obvious that life without him doesn’t sting like it used to.

“When you lose good players, it impacts your team,” Donovan said. “But at the same point, too, we’ve had to learn how to play without him and Wendell [Carter Jr.] and Otto [Porter]. We’ve had to learn to do that. Some of the guys that have maybe gotten the opportunity to play, like [Tomas Satoransky], like Luke [Kornet], like [Ryan Arcidiacono], Denzel [Valentine], those guys have given us a really, really good boost. . . .

“If we can get whole as a team health-wise, you know we still have to incorporate those [injured] guys back in. And certainly roles and responsibilities change. But I wouldn’t say that we’re playing necessarily better without [Markkanen]. It will be great to have him back, as good as a player as he is, but we’ve had to learn to play without several different players during the course of the early part of this season.”