CHICAGO – He was one of the guys who arrived when the team finally decided it was time to start from scratch. So Lauri Markkanen was well aware that the first few years of his career could feature a few more losses than wins.
It’s also safe to say that after two seasons of that, the talented young forward is getting a little tired of it.
“I’m in my third year and we haven’t been to the playoffs, haven’t won a whole lotta games. So I know that’s one thing that really, I know, pisses both of us off,” said Markkanen as he sat next to teammate Zach LaVine at Bulls’ media day on Monday. “So we want to get to that winning record first and obviously that comes from us playing well.”
Yet even if they do, the Bulls are coming off a 22-win season, and while they made some shrewd offseason moves, they didn’t acquire a superstar. That would make the leap to the playoffs seem a bit aggressive as the team enters their third year of this current rebuild. To put it in perspective, the last team into the playoffs last year won 41 games, 19 more than the Bulls had last season.
Like Markkanen, executive vice president John Paxson has tired of the bottom finishes in the Eastern Conference, which failed to yield a Top 3 draft pick in either season. So he’s set the bar high going into the 2019-2020 season as he believes the group will take major steps forward.
“We think we can compete, and when you can compete at a high level, you have the ability to be a playoff-caliber team. We set that as a goal,” said Paxson. “Jim (Boylen) talks about it, he’s not afraid of it, and our guys through their work have shown us they want to make that commitment.”
Is that realistic? We’ll the team was riddled with injuries for most of last year to their key players whom they relied on to get their rebuild going. Zach LaVine led the core group with just 63 games, while a preseason elbow injury then a late-season rapid heartbeat scare limited him to 52 contests. Seventh-overall pick Wendell Carter Jr played only 44 games before he was knocked out with a thumb injury.
Acquired at the trade deadline last February, Otto Porter Jr. played in just 15 games before his season ended early with a shoulder ailment.
With those players healthy, Paxson counts on those players leading the way towards a the team’s first postseason berth since 2017. They’ll also be paired with heralded offseason aquisitions Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young, who figure to strengthen the team as a whole.
He’s also expecting his young core – mentioning LaVine, Markkanen, and Porter specifically – to raise their games so they might do the same for their teammates.
“We know we have young guys who…it’s their time to step up,” said Paxson. “We’ve also talked about the fact that they’re mature young guys; Wendell, throw him into that mix, too. He’s a very mature 20-year old young man. But that’s the reality of this thing. They need to step up.”
If the Bulls are going to make the playoffs their goal, they’ll have to over the next seven months.