While the Chicago Bulls found success in February, they remain hopeful Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. will make their roster whole after the All-Star break

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Jamal Collier, Chicago Tribune
·4 min read
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The Chicago Bulls are nearing the end of their first month with a winning record since December 2017, a streak pulled off without two crucial rotation players.

Forwards Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. have both been hampered by injury in February and neither player projects to return to the before All-Star break.

The Bulls still do not know when their lineup will be back at full strength, but with both players yet to be cleared to practice, it seems like help is still a few weeks away.

Earlier this week, coach Billy Donovan said it would be highly unlikely for Markkanen to return from his shoulder injury before the break. The team wants to see how he responds to contact before clearing him to play. And although Porter has made progress — he’s been cleared to resume running and shooting — the Bulls are also unlikely to have more clarity on his status before the March 5 hiatus.

“When the time comes and we can hopefully get whole as a team, we’re probably going to have to readjust and re-orchestrate a lot of things to make it all fit together,” Donovan said. “Because we’ve kind of really been in a mode of dealing with players being out more so than we’ve been in a mode of getting them back.

“That’s going to be somewhat of a challenge, when we do get whole, how do we get these guys back playing together and create that chemistry and that rhythm with one another. In the absence of Wendell (Carter), in the absence of Lauri and even in the absence of Otto, we’ve had three pretty key, significant players out.”

Markkanen has been out since Feb. 5 when he sprained the AC joint in his right shoulder trying to score in the post against the Orlando Magic. He initially hoped to return on the early end of a two-to-four week timeline, but his discomfort has lingered.

“The biggest challenge I think for Lauri right now is because of the injury, if he re-injures it or hurts it again relatively quickly on his return, it’s going to almost put him back to Ground Zero again,” Donovan said. “So, he’s working with the medical staff and he’s doing what he can physically to keep himself in condition. But I’m not sure that I would be able to say within these seven days that he’s gonna be back before the break.”

Markkanen, who is eligible to become a restricted free agent this offseason, was off to a strong start this season. In 14 games, he averaged a career-high in points (19.1), field goal percentage (51.4%) and 3-point percentage (39.6%). And he produced those numbers after dealing with an absence because of the NBA’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols

But the Bulls have played well in his absence, entering Friday’s matchup with the Suns at 10-7 on the season without him.

“We’ve had to learn to play without him,” Donovan said. “I don’t look at him differently at all. I still think he’s an important piece to our team, an important guy on our team. I think he’s worked really hard to get himself back healthy, and certainly there’s not much he can do other than the rehab piece of it. The body is going to have to heal that injury, but I still feel he’s an important component to our team and a valuable piece to our team.”

Markkanen has battled injury issues in recent years, but he has been available more than Porter, who had adjusted to a reserve role and was averaging 11.6 points off the bench. Porter has been limited by injuries for the second straight year. A nagging foot injury limited him to 14 games in 2019-20, and a lingering back injury is threatening to do the same this season.

Donovan had good news about Porter’s status prior to Friday’s game , confirming that he was moving in the right direction. When Porter could return to the lineup remained in question.

“I don’t have a date we are targeting to be honest with you because he hasn’t been able to do too much,” Donovan said. “It’s just more, taking inventory on him each and every day on how he’s feeling, how much more can we push him and how much more can he physically do to get back his conditioning. I don’t know how long that will take. I think we’ll have a lot more clarity of where he is at physically coming out of the break because he will have some real opportunity to get some work in.”