Coby White Saves the Day, but Chicago Bulls Need More to Finally Get on Track

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist INovember 13, 2019

(Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

All it took was Coby White hitting seven three-pointers in the fourth quarter. 

The Chicago Bulls began their season with playoff and All-Star aspirations, though a 3-7 start poked major holes in the legitimacy of their goals. Then, with a 120-102 revenge victory against the lowly New York Knicks on Tuesday night, they got their fourth win of 2019-20 and a bit of optimism for the future to go along with it. 

And again, all it took was Coby White hitting seven three-pointers in the fourth quarter. 

To this point, the Bulls have not been very good at all. After they dropped three of their first five games to the Charlotte Hornets, Cleveland Cavaliers and Knicks, it seemed the preseason expectations may have grown a little too optimistic.

Zach LaVine has been mediocre at best to start the year, averaging 20.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 3.4 turnovers while shooting only 43.1 percent from the field. After a huge opening-night performance, Lauri Markkanen has been nearly invisible. The same is true of White, whose nuclear shooting Tuesday night masked a 34.4 field-goal percentage and 21.2 three-point percentage over his first 10 professional games.

Wendell Carter Jr. and free-agent additions Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young have been the only bright spots. 

Some of the Bulls' problems can be explained by bad luck. They're getting the right shots. They're just missing. That's frustrating, but it's not a reason to panic.

Much more concerning are the blown double-digit fourth-quarter leads to the Knicks (in their first matchup) and Los Angeles Lakers, the minus-9.8 fourth-quarter net rating, which ranks in the bottom five in the league, and an overly aggressive defensive scheme that gives up the highest percentage of shots allowed at the rim and the second-highest percentage of corner threes, the two most valuable shots in the game.   

The Bulls' poor decision-making and questionable strategy have shot them in the foot, but there are moments in which things appear to click: when LaVine is attacking the basket with a decisive edge, when Markkanen is integrated into the offense rather than watching it from a distance and when White goes off for seven threes in a quarter after the Bulls entered the final period with the score level. 

Not to be lost in White's hellfire was one of LaVine's better performances of the year. The Bulls have made their bed with him as the main man, so they'll have to live and die with his decision-making. That can be a scary reality, but he also makes skeptics eat crow on some nights. 

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Twenty-five points and five assists with only three turnovers is the kind of stat line the Bulls need out of LaVine if they want to take a step toward relevance. His scoring arsenal is well-documented, but he wasn't hijacking the offense. His passing also looked sharp, and he made his teammates better. 

The Bulls were a trendy preseason team because of their savvy offseason acquisitions, but adding Satoransky doesn't turn LaVine into an All-Star; LaVine has to turn himself into one. That comes with taking smarter shots, limiting the bad decisions and being able to read the game faster. When he's able to pick his spots, not do too much and succeed in the thinking categories of the game, the Bulls follow suit. 

Markkanen, on the other hand, has not looked right.

The 22-year-old is a crucial building block for this team, and he was supposed to start putting things together in Year 3. Oblique soreness may have something to do with his numbers dropping off over the last two weeks, but it's officially time to start worrying about whether he can be as important to Chicago's rebuild as the front office had hoped. 

Three years in, the Bulls still haven't figured out how to maximize Markkanen's skillset. Being a pure floor-spacer isn't good enough, especially when he's shooting only 27.3 percent from deep. Head coach Jim Boylen needs to continue building his confidence and encouraging him to attack the basket rather than just existing on the fringes of the offense.

Still, he does show flashes of rare qualities.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 3: Lauri Markkanen #24 of the Chicago Bulls smiles during a game against the Indiana Pacers on November 3, 2019 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

His ability to push the break and finish acrobatic shots is unique for a 7-footer, but the Bulls need to put him in positions to succeed. He needs to be involved in actions and receive the ball on the go because his high center of gravity and shaky handle prevent him from creating his own shot in isolation situations. Standard pick-and-pops can get him into a rhythm and should be unguardable. 

Even with a lackluster game from Markkanen (13 points, eight rebounds, six turnovers on 6-of-10 shooting), White, channeling his inner Klay Thompson, helped Chicago dominate the fourth quarter and close out the Knicks with an exclamation point. That's the first legitimate sign of growth this season.

The Bulls got too carried away with their own self-perception and seemed to begin the campaign expecting to win games rather than proving they could. If they hope to make good on those preseason expectations, it's time to cut the nonsense, build on this performance and close out contests against non-bottom-feeding teams.

Beating the Knicks isn't exactly a reason to get the floats out at Grant Park. But overcoming a mental block and finding a blueprint for success in the fourth quarter of a close game is a hurdle the Bulls needed to clear.

Maybe the floodgates for Chicago's success will now open, just as they did for White's fourth-quarter three-point shooting.


Follow Will on Twitter @WontGottlieb

All stats from Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass unless otherwise noted.

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