Chicago Bulls fans have been dreaming of a starting backcourt featuring their scoring-machine guards. But is that really what they should want?
The Chicago Bulls were not a good team in 2019. There, it’s out there. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some good pieces. If anything, one might have an easier time arguing that the pieces don’t fit than them not being any good. For all their talent, the group has proven to be wildly inconsistent. But they can’t all be mismatched, can they?
With that in mind, we have to examine the two players that have the most uncertainty around whether or not they can be a winning combination: Zach LaVine and Coby White. Their games are vastly different but both have shown to be prolific scorers. Unfortunately, they also share some of the same deficiencies. So, can these two operate together and be successful?
Bullish on Backcourt
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the potential of LaVine and White. We saw both players set records for the Bulls, as they were often the only bright spots in an otherwise frustrating season. White became the Bulls player and NBA rookie ever to hit seven threes in a quarter. LaVine is Bulls the record-holder for made threes in a season.
They combined for 58 games of 20-plus points, and 22 30-plus point performances. LaVine did a lot of the Bulls heavy lifting and even hit 40 points in six games, maxing-out with 49 (including the game-winner) against the Charlotte Hornets.
White, the seventh-overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was seventh in the NBA in scoring among rookies (including Zion) when things shut down. He ended the season with 11-straight games of 12-plus points and scored 11-plus in 14 of 15 contests. The spark plug rookie put a bow on his truncated rookie tour by scoring 19-plus points in nine straight.
They gave fans their first taste of what could be in the second game of the season. A couple of nights after combining for 33 points in an upsetting loss to the Charlotte Hornets, the duo went off for 62 against the Memphis Grizzlies.
We didn’t get to see it when White got his first start against Cleveland, either. LaVine missed that contest. All we got were many reasons to get excited about what they could do together.
Through Red-Tinted Glasses
All those points being put up in bunches can make one miss the other things going on in between buckets. But there are some important things to note. LaVine, for all of his scoring prowess, has done much of it by sheer volume. He is seventh among starting guards in usage, but he also has the lowest assist percentage and the second-worst assist to turnover ratio among the top-10. Even as a point guard his rookie year his assist percentage was 24 percent.
White has had the typical rookie bouts with efficiency, with 24 games of nine points or less. Mixed in there were three contests where he shot a combined 0-24 from the floor, one of which resulted in a goose egg.
A slash line of .394/.354/.791 is not desirable, especially for a guard. He was drafted as a point guard, but White was always known as more of a scorer than a playmaker, though he will occasionally pull a nice dime out of his bag. He was correcting both by season’s end; posting a .480/.432/.903 line and averaging 4.4 assists over the final nine games.
Having two guards who can struggle with efficiency and aren’t great at setting up their teammates is bad enough. When neither of those players is stout on the defensive end you have a problem.
Both players are net negatives because they just don’t stop anyone. LaVine, for all his athleticism, struggles laterally and with concentration. As for White, when his youth isn’t on display in his efficiency, it certainly does when he gets caught on an island and starts guessing.
Because compounding efficiency and playmaking deficiencies with slow-footed, indifferent defense isn’t enough, we have to consider what a LaVine-White tandem means for the rest of the starters.
Wendell Carter doesn’t need the ball to be effective. And even if he does get more touches (he should), it likely wouldn’t be enough to warrant any concern of starting their dynamic backcourt pair. This is also true of Otto Porter, though he can’t be in the plans beyond 2020 when his contract is up.
No, the potential problem is seven feet tall and Finnish. Lauri Markkanen is the ultimate wrench in any plan where Zach and Coby are starting cogs. The only players with a higher usage rate than Markkanen on the team are LaVine, White, and (for some reason) Denzel Valentine. Markkanen is coming off a disappointing season after flashing star potential in 2018-19.
Injuries and a new offense that made him into a spot-up shooter doomed Markkanen last year. But Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley have made it clear they see him as a key piece and are committed to getting him back on track.
But with the guards not being great table setters, how can Markkanen get back to what he does outside of isolations? Lauri is also not a great on-ball defender or rim protector. So when all three are on the floor together, they’re getting outscored by over 13 points per 100 possessions.
Careful What You Wish For
A lot is still unsettled about the Bulls; most notably what happens with head coach Jim Boylen. But the team we see in 2021 will look a heck of a lot like the one we saw this season. How it is deployed will be key. LaVine is reportedly in on the moves being made right now and White is coming off a promising rookie year but can these guards play together?
White, at worst, looks like a legitimate sixth-man. But he’ll need to be more consistent. LaVine seems maxed out as a volume scorer, albeit a good one, with tunnel vision who can be lazy defensively. Defense isn’t a strength of either player, and lead-guard duties seem to be stretch for both.
Ideally, they would be in the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum or James Harden-Russell Westbrook mold. But they lack the efficiency and playmaking of either pair. The LaVine-White starting duo might just be better in theory than it would be in reality.