Bulls set to dive into second half with some major questions to answer

Can forward Lauri Markkanen get healthy and contribute? To trade or not to trade? Remember Otto Porter Jr.? The Bulls have a playoff push in sight, but do they have the horses to finish it?

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A healthy Lauri Markkanen would be huge not only for the playoff push, but allows the Bulls front office to get a better feel of his value as a restricted free agent.

A healthy Lauri Markkanen would be huge not only for the playoff push, but allows the Bulls front office to get a better feel of his value as a restricted free agent.

AP

The first half was the push for Billy Donovan.

The Bulls coach pushing his young core to understand what goes into winning basketball games, pushing the likes of a Zach LaVine to finally get All-Star recognition by doing a better job of being a two-way player, and pushing a rookie like Patrick Williams right into the deep end of the pool, asking him to guard the likes of elite talent named LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard.

That push is over. Now comes the pull.

“We have a long way to go and I’m trying to not have them be satisfied and we need to keep trying to pull more out of each other,’’ Donovan said last week, discussing the upcoming second half of the season. “They need to pull more out of me, I gotta pull more out of them. We just gotta pull more out of each other. And there’s more to give. And there’s growth and there’s an opportunity to improve and get better.’’

At 16-18 and sitting in the No. 9 spot of the Eastern Conference, there definitely is.

With the play-in format once again back in the mix for a spot in the postseason, seeds seven through 10 are a roll of the dice. No, the ideal spot the Bulls would like to see themselves in is in that top six. That guarantees them a playoff series that the franchise hasn’t had since 2017.

The good news is the East logjam has them only two games out of being the No. 4 seed. That’s why Donovan doesn’t want them feeling satisfied.

“The one thing that’s good about it is every team basically right now for the most part controls their destiny,’’ Donovan said. “You know, you’re not in a situation where you sit there and say, ‘Well, you know, if this team wins and this team loses, if this happens, this happens, maybe we can...’ There’s none of that right now.

“You put everything you have into it, and then at the end of the year you look and see where you’re at and you can I think feel good about the effort you put in.’’

The storylines that will be key for that to happen? Of course it starts with a certain 7-footer.

1. On the “Mark’’ – Lauri Markkanen has missed the last 13 games with a right shoulder injury, with the Bulls going 8-5 in his absence. There’s two ways to look at it: The Bulls are either better without him or they are playing some solid basketball right now and Markkanen’s skillset would only give them another weapon.

Donovan and executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas are sold on the latter.

A healthy Markkanen, as well as one that is engaged and playing well down the stretch, would be huge not only for the playoff push, but also allowing the front office to get a better feel of Markkanen’s value as a restricted free agent.

2. To trade or not to trade – The Sun-Times reported last month that Thad Young was a trade priority for several teams that felt he was the missing piece for a playoff run. What the Bulls must weigh, however, is trading for a future asset vs. keeping an important player like Young and getting this core into a meaningful game.

LaVine, Markkanen, Coby White, Wendell Carter Jr. … none of these players have even sniffed an NBA postseason. Is there more value in keeping Young and playing a meaningful game? Or if a late first-round pick in a loaded 2021 draft class is offered up is long-term the play?

Only Karnisovas will be able to answer that for the franchise, as the Mar. 25 trade deadline nears.

3. Otto-matic – The strength of this team has been its bench, and if Otto Porter Jr. (back) can return soon for a two-month push, the bench has a chance to be one of the best in the East.

With Porter, however, that’s a big “if.’’

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