LaVine, DeRozan lead Bulls past Jazz, but what if Markkanen had stayed?
Back in 2017, Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen were introduced together as the future of the Bulls, along with Kris Dunn.
On Saturday at the United Center, LaVine and Markkanen engaged in a shootout that gave fans a feeling of what could have, and probably should have been. Now two years removed from the Bulls, Markkanen, 25, is having an all-star caliber season in Utah.
The Bulls stayed hot, beating the Jazz 126-118, and are now 8-3 in their last 11 games. The existing star system continued its recent surge as LaVine scored 36 points, DeMar DeRozan finished with 35, while Nikola Vucevic added 15 points and 16 rebounds.
Add the current version of Markkanen, though, and the Bulls might be serious Finals contenders.
"I'm just extremely happy for Lauri," LaVine said. "The type of player he's become, how aggressive he is out there. I talked before the game, he was going to come in and try to make a statement."
The 7-foot Finland native finished with 28 points. Late in third quarter, Markkanen threw down a tomahawk dunk over the top of Vucevic, then sprinted to the other end and blocked a shot by LaVine, although a foul was called before the block.
"Those dunks he was putting down, I had to tell him in the first half to calm down a little bit and that didn't help anything," LaVine said. "I'm just happy for him. He's 100% an all-star in my book, he's getting my vote."
LaVine followed up his 11 three-pointers night in Philadelphia by going 6-for-12 from long range against the Jazz.
Coach Billy Donovan said after the game he'd like to see LaVine take 10-15 shots from 3-point range each game.
The Bulls (19-21) got a much-needed spark after falling behind by 7 in the fourth quarter. To that point, Patrick Williams and Coby White had combined to score a point, but then tallied 11 on four straight possessions. LaVine followed with a pair of 3s and the Bulls were in control at 114-106 with 5:08 left.
The Bulls remade the roster during the summer of 2021 while Markkanen was a restricted free agent. But the Bulls management team of Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley hoped to keep him and set up a power forward rotation with Patrick Williams.
Markkanen felt like he needed a fresh start, so the Bulls spent a few months trying to get a first-round pick back in a trade, finally landing one from Portland in a three-way deal that sent Markkanen to Cleveland. He went to Utah last summer in the Donovan Mitchell trade.
After the game, Markkanen said he didn't think leaving the Bulls was a significant reason for his improvement.
"I think it just ran its course," he said. "It wasn't the time for me. I know I've gotten better as a player, gotten more mature as a person. So I think it just takes time to evolve.
"I feel like I'm in the right place at the right time, just clocking with the coaching staff system and the guys I'm surrounded with. I wouldn't see it that way. It's a different path for everybody. I have good memories from Chicago."
When evaluating Markkanen's four years with the Bulls, it's easy to start with the 14-game stretch midway through his sophomore season of 2018-19, when he averaged 24.6 points and 13.3 rebounds. Those numbers didn't last.
What was noticeable back then was opposing teams trying to be more physical with Markkanen. They knocked him around a bit thinking he might shy away from driving to the hoop, and it seemed to work. His added strength and confidence is obvious this season.
One area where the Bulls deserve some blame is Markkanen spent too much time standing at the 3-point line. In the summer of 2017, Markkanen provided a nice blueprint for his future success while playing for the Finland national team in the European championships. He'd put it on the floor, attack the basket, hit pullup jumpers and turnarounds, have the ball in his hands at crunchtime.
Utah let him be himself, and he's shown the positive traits that happen as players mature. Markkanen is averaging 24.5 points and 8.4 rebounds this year, while shooting a career-best 42.0% from 3.