Lauri Markkanen’s time with Bulls might be ending now that team has been eliminatedon May 15, 2021 at 1:56 am

The stat line reminded everyone what Lauri Markkanen could be once again.

Actually, what he always should have been.

And that’s the frustration.

Markkanen came off the bench in the Bulls’ victory Thursday against the Raptors to notch 20 points, seven rebounds, two assists, a steal and a block in 25 minutes on his way to finishing a team-high plus-15. He performed so well that it cut into starter Patrick Williams’ playing time, limiting him to 18 minutes.

But, like too many of Markkanen’s good moments, it came with an asterisk: The Raptors basically were fielding a G-League team, choosing to fold up the tents last week and lock in their spot in the draft lottery.

Was shooting 6-for-9 from three-point range, as Markkanen did, impressive? No doubt. But his offensive skills never have been questioned.

His ability to play with physicality for his 7-foot size and, more important, to show up consistently have been.

So while Markkanen reminded the Bulls of what he could do, it couldn’t keep them from finally being eliminated in the battle for the final spot in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament when the Wizards beat the visiting Cavaliers on Friday.

It didn’t change Markkanen’s standing with the Bulls, either. Barring a complete change of heart, he likely will be playing his last two games in a Bulls uniform Saturday at the Nets and Sunday against the Bucks before becoming a restricted free agent this summer. That writing has been on the wall since March.

Since the trade deadline, Markkanen has gone from starting at power forward and getting some minutes at center to coming off the bench at small forward, a position he hasn’t fully embraced and really doesn’t have the defensive ability to play.

So while the Bulls haven’t completely shoved Markkanen out the door, he has endured a series of demotions because of other players they consider to be more in their plans.

Executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas said he was behind Markkanen at the start of the season and just after the trade deadline, but playing time and role changes now indicate otherwise.

”I haven’t had any conversations with Arturas or [general manager] Marc [Eversley] on that,” coach Billy Donovan said of Markkanen’s future. ”I would just say this: I really, really love Lauri as a player. He’s a great guy. And he has been an incredible teammate. And he has sacrificed a lot. And I do think when the [trades for Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis] did happen, he was a guy who was playing center and [power forward], and now it’s gone from [power forward] to [small forward]. It’s really changed a lot.

”I’ve just appreciated the way he has come in every day and tried to be a team guy and done the best he can in managing the minutes that he’s gotten.”

The Bulls will have the final say in Markkanen’s future this offseason. Whether they figure out a sign-and-trade or decide to match any offer he gets as a restricted free agent, it will be in their hands.

Markkanen said last week his intention will be to sign with a team that will give him a chance to start again. It doesn’t sound as though that opportunity will be there with the Bulls.

That’s why these last two games could be a reminder of why the Bulls deemed Markkanen a pillar of their rebuild in 2017 — and of how he never lived up to that expectation.

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