After finishing with a disappointing 40-42 record and failing to qualify for the postseason last season, it became more obvious than ever that the Chicago Bulls needed to make drastic changes if they still held out any hope of returning to contention. The three most obvious routes toward improving the roster were through free agency, the draft, and the trade block, each of which the Bulls for the most part chose to ignore this offseason.
It shouldn't have come as a surprise then, when Chicago immediately stumbled coming out of the gate to start the 2023-24 season, digging themselves a deep hole by losing 14 of their first 19 games. Fortunately for this inept front office, however, there was a fourth route to improvement all along, one that most people (myself included) overlooked in the preseason — internal development.
I'm referring to none other than Coby White, of course. Written off by many fans due to his inability to secure a starting backcourt role by the end of his four-year rookie contract, White seemed destined to become a quality role player and nothing more. Since being drafted to the league, he's put in the work every summer to address the holes in his game, and he's finally beginning to reap the rewards.
White is undeniably in the midst of his best season to date, averaging 18.8 points, 5 assists, and 4.8 rebounds per game. He's also shooting career-highs of 46% from the field and 40.3% from three-point range. As a result, Coby has helped lead the Bulls to a 16-10 record since Zach LaVine missed December due to foot soreness, a 50.4 win pace that has bumped Chicago back into the 9th seed position.
Coby White's rise to stardom is single-handedly keeping the Bulls afloat and deserves some MIP praise.
Coby's excellence was on full display last night, as he racked up a near triple-double performance with 26 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists while shooting a hyper-efficient 10-for-14 from the floor. White registered 41 minutes and posted a plus/minus of +9, which should have been more than enough to grant Chicago the win over a very strong Suns team.
Unfortunately, his Bulls teammates would let him down in the end. Despite phenomenal outings from Coby and Alex Caruso, the Bulls would be outscored by 11 points in those seven short minutes he rested. In the end, it was spell defeat for Chicago, capitalized by a go-ahead jumper from Kevin Durant to seal the game with 1.6 seconds remaining.
This loss was particularly difficult to stomach, as Chicago choked away their commanding 23-point lead in the fourth quarter. However, it also gave Bulls fans a reason to be hopeful, as we got a glimpse of what this team might look like if management finally handed the reins over to the young guns.
I believe we've seen more than enough from Coby now to know this isn't just a hot streak. Over his last 26 games, White is averaging 22.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game — exponential increases across the board from his averages of 9.7 points, 2.9 rebounds, and 2.8 assists last year. All biases aside, it's time Coby has his name thrown into the ring as a legitimate contender for the NBA's Most Improved Player award.
Other candidates that highlight the list include Tyrese Maxey, Alperen Sengun, Scottie Barnes, and Tyrese Haliburton. Considering players like Julius Randle, Victor Oladipo, CJ McCollum, and Goran Dragic have all won the award in the past decade, this year's crop of contenders for the award appears to be much more competitive than usual.
After the backlash the NBA received for granting the award to Ja Morant in 2022, I wouldn't be surprised to see the league turn the cheek to some of these players who have already proven they can contribute at an extremely high level, particularly Haliburton. While Maxey is viewed as the odds-on frontrunner for the award since he has the benefit of playing alongside an MVP-caliber talent, Coby has actually outpaced Maxey's statistical growth this season.
Whoever wins the award matters little in the end, but that won't stop me from rooting for our guy to take home the hardware. The fact Coby has even worked his name into this discussion in the first place is good enough for me, Now that's he locked into a freshly-inked three-year deal with the Bulls, I look forward to seeing which ceiling Coby breaks next.