Is waiting for Lauri Markkanen to return a spectator sport?
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It was nice to see Lauri Markkanen in his Bulls uniform the other day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in a game.
He was one of several players modeling the new sponsorship patch the team will wear on its jerseys this season. The advertising is for an online eyewear company, which figures to be a punch line every time the Bulls shoot poorly.
But we won’t be seeing Markkanen for a while, no matter how powerful our lenses are. He’s out another three-to-five weeks because of a sprained elbow he suffered during practice Sept. 27. He’ll be in street clothes when the Bulls open their season Thursday night in Philadelphia.
The only thing to do now is wait and watch. Wait for Markkanen to heal and watch to see if his teammates can muddle through without him.
Heading into training camp, the main source of excitement and anticipation was the idea of Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn finally playing together for months at a time and gelling. All three were out with injuries for stretches last season, with LaVine playing just 24 games after rehabbing from a torn ACL he suffered the season before.
This was going to be the chance to get a long look at what the future might look like. The framework of the rebuild. The foundation.
So that’s not there for our viewing pleasure, at least not yet. You can either bum out over it or you can see if something good comes out of it. You can shake your fist at the sky over Markkanen’s absence following a 27-55 season or you can thank your lucky stars that you don’t have Carmelo Anthony on your team and have to be told on a regular basis by ESPN that he still matters.
You want good news? Wendell Carter Jr., whom the Bulls took seventh overall in this year’s draft, played well enough in the preseason to earn a starting spot at center. LaVine believes he’s close to being all the way back physically from his torn knee ligament. Bobby Portis will continue to bring toughness to a team in need of it.
But coach Fred Hoiberg, who probably needs to avoid another poor season to preserve gainful employment, is going to have his hands full trying to keep this team competitive without Markkanen, a first-team All-Rookie selection last season. A lot of that has to do with defense, the precepts of which the Bulls were unable to grasp in the preseason.
Count me among the skeptics about Jabari Parker, whom the Bulls signed to a two-year, $40 million contract in the offseason. It’s very difficult to get past his response to questions about his shaky defense during an interview on The Score (670-AM) in July:
“I just stick to my strengths. Look at everybody in the league. They don’t pay players to play defense. There’s only two players, historically, who play defense. I’m not going to say that I won’t, but to say that’s a weakness is like saying that’s everybody’s weakness. I’ve scored 30s and 20s off of guys who say they try to play defense.”
Those quotes are not an indictment of his ability to play defense. They’re an indictment of his ability to have a clue. James Harden can say something like that. Jabari Parker can’t.
His signing doesn’t seem to fit with what the Bulls are trying to do, but the local kid brings Chicago bona fides to a franchise looking to keep fans interested while the rebuild moves forward. This situation bears watching, especially with Hoiberg designating Parker as a bench player.
Trying to keep the long view will be the challenge this season. The victories don’t figure to flow this season, no matter how weak the East is compared with the West.
But this season is really about next season. If Markkanen, LaVine and Dunn mesh well together, if all that young talent contributes and if the Bulls lose enough games to be a lottery team, it’ll be a victory. They’ll have cap space to sign a big-ticket free agent in the offseason.
It’s hard to preach patience. Chicago is tired of waiting. But if the team shows promise this season, next season could be very good. “Next Year Could Be Very Good’’ sounds like a cousin of what the Cubs used to say after each season. But for Bulls fans, that’s really what it’s all about.
They’ll have to settle for watching for signs of development from a young core. And waiting for Markkanen to return. Can that be considered a spectator sport?