WCC Notebook: Lauri Markkanen continues dominate month, Blackhawks deadline recap, Kyle Long restructures contract, and more

By Thomas Gibbons

It’s been too long since I have done an WCC notebook and what better time to do one when there is so much going on. The Bulls are playing better, the Blackhawks made no moves at the trade deadline but are still in the mix for the postseason, Kyle Long has restructured his deal to be a Chicago Bear for life and clear up some cap space for GM Ryan Pace this offseason, and there is some great quotes coming out of Cubs camp in Mesa, AZ. Let’s start with the Bulls and Lauri Markkanen’s continued development.

In February, Markkanen is averaging 26.4 points per game to go along with 12.4 rebounds a game.

Markkanen is taking that next step in his development. He is shooting 37% from three this month and when the three is not falling, he is finding other ways to score. A double-double a game is now expected as we have seen over the past year and a half his ability to score.

This is the kind of player you build a franchise around. This stretch of dominate play from Markkanen is the cultivating moment that the Jimmy Butler trade to Minnesota was a enormous win for the Bulls. A 20 year old out of Arizona reached double figures in his first 10 games in the NBA and became a fan favorite. From the start, fans saw the potential to be a core player and he is becoming that.

Markkanen, along with Zach LaVine’s performance against the Celtics on Saturday, was fantastic. Two players the Bulls are heavily invested in carried their team to victory over one of the best teams in the East. Everything was working for the Bulls and they looked like a winning team.

These are Markkanen’s highlights from the win over the Celtics. He does it all in his career night. He attacks the boards, cuts to the basket, takes it coast to coast with four defenders around him. His growth and maturation has been outstanding to this point and it is only going to get better when Wendell Carter Jr. is on the floor with him and whoever the Bulls add in the draft this summer.

Do not forget about LaVine. The 23 year old is averaging close to 24 points in February and has become quite the facilitator, 6 assists per game this month. His game has taken a big step since last season. He is a prolific scorer and is not settling for the outside shot, something we saw a lot of last year. He is attacking the basket more and creating his own shot.

The Bulls front office consisting of John Paxson and Gar Forman are criticized often for their work during this rebuild and recent moves. It has come to a point where fans find a way to turn anything they say into a negative. Right away when the Bulls traded for Otto Porter Jr., I could not tell you how many people I saw who were upset. Porter Jr. is getting paid a lot of money for someone with average numbers. It also takes the Bulls out of the running to sign of the big free agents this summers. But after Porter Jr. played well in his first few games as a Bull, people started to bite their words.

I think John Paxson has done a fine job during this rebuild. It started with the Butler trade, drafting Markkaen, Carter Jr., and Chandler Hutchison who all look to be very good picks. The Bulls have a history of drafting well outside of a few busts but overall Paxson has an eye for talent. The young core the Bulls have put together of Lavine, Markkanen, Carter Jr., Porter Jr. and Hutchison is a great start. Other like Valentine, Shaq Harrison, Wayne Selden are guys I expect back next season because they can fill a role off the bench. Kris Dunn is a whole other topic but because of injuries and inconsistency, his days in Chicago are numbered. All in all, the Bulls are in a good spot and we will see where they land on draft day.

The Chicago Blackhawks decided to stand pat and stick the course as they fight for the playoffs.

Stan Bowman addressed reporters shortly after the trade deadline on Monday and did no discuss any moves the Blackhawks made because there were not any. He said some things were on the “borderline” of happening but in the end they did not make any moves.

The Blackhawks did a majority of their moves prior to the deadline. Trading Nick Schmaltz for Dyaln Strome was home run trade, acquiring Drake Caggiula from the Oilers for Brandon Manning was a nice move by Bowman to get Manning off the books. And trading Jan Rutta for Slater Koekkoek gave the Blackhawks another young defensemen to evaluate. The Blackhawks do have some players they could have moved like Artem Anisimov and Jon Hayden, but apparently the offers, if any, did not make sense for the Blackhawks.

There were plenty of intriguing names on the market that would have made sense for the Blackhawks to go after, mainly Mark Stone or Ryan Dzingel. Both players were going to hit free agency this summer but the Blackhawks could have negotiated an extension once acquiring them. Stone is now locked up in Vegas and Dzingel is just a rental for the Columbus Bluejackets as they chase the Stanley Cup. But the Blackhawks were definitely not going to be buyers nor sellers. Their month of February have brought only four losses and find themselves in the mix for a Wild Card spot. If the Blackhawks did not turn a corner after losing seven of eight to start the new year, we may be looking a very different lineup. But Bowman and the front office decided to stick with this group and it was probably the best choice. They will have ample cap space this summer to go after players like Artemi Panarin and Ryan Dzingel.

Outside of deadline news, Corey Crawford has been activated from the IR and will play on the upcoming road trip. Coach Jeremy Colliton did no specify what game Crawford will return between the pipes.

While Cam Ward and Colin Delia did a fine job in Crawford’s absence, this could not have come at a better time for the Blackhawks. It would have been great to have Crawford in net this past weekend but now for the stretch run, the Blackhawks have their Stanley Cup goalie back. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Blackhawks are five points behind the Minnesota Wild for the second Wild Card spot. It is not going to be an easy climb, especially with games against Buffalo, Dallas, and San Jose on the horizon. But having Crawford back is huge and with Patrick Kane, Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews and Dylan Strome playing as good as they are, do not count out the Hawks just yet.

Bears guard Kyle Long has agreed to restructure his contract and open up some cap space this offseason.

Long was due to count $8.5 million against the cap this season. No numbers have been announced yet but this is news of the selfless player Kyle Long is. He is a team player and a leader and this speaks to his character.

Injuries have continued to come up during Long’s career and some wondered if the Bears would part ways with him this offseason because of the cap restraints. But even with missing time again last season, I thought he played pretty well.

The Bears will return their entire starting offensive line and that bodes well for success.

And for Bears fans who hoped Robbie Gould would re-unite with the Bears, the dream is dead. The 49ers have placed the franchise tag on the veteran kicker. While I would have been all for a Gould reunion, the Bears should be focused on finding a young, consistent kicker who can deliver. Reports surfaced some weeks ago that Gould was looking for a three year deal. He has been one of the most consistent kickers in the league the past few seasons, but at age 36, there is risk. The Bears will be releasing Cody Parkey at the start of the new league year on March 13th and the hunt for another kicker will start again.

Jon Lester and Kris Bryant have had some funny comments this Spring Training.

To read more on their comments visit Alex Patt’s article.

I do not look much into Spring Training but there is plenty to be happy about so far from Mesa. Bryant homered in his first at-bat of the spring and looks completely healthy. Yu Darvish had his first start on Tuesday and reached 96 on the pitch clock. He threw all his pitches and while his velocity looked good, he did walk four batters in about two innings of work. But I am not going to overreact about one spring start. The important thing is he is healthy and reaching 96 on the gun is a good sign.

In other news, Bryce Harper is still unsigned. The Phillies and Dodgers now seem to be in on the prized free agent. The Cubs were never really in on Harper despite the reported interest of Harper wanting to come to the Cubs. But as Tom Ricketts put it, there is no more money.

I am ready to roll with this Cubs team. If the pitching staff stays healthy, they can be the best rotation in baseball. Kris Bryant is healthy and has a chip on his shoulder. And we know what we are going to get from Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez, and Jason Heyward. And I am really excited to see what Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, and Albert Almora Jr do in their defined roles.

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