1-2 punch of Zach LaVine and Coby White shows potential for Bulls' young core
"I don’t know how good we (LaVine and White) can be, but I know we both individually want to be great." -Zach LaVine
Remind Me Later •
The 1-2 scoring punch of Zach LaVine and Coby White showcased in Chicago's last three games provides a glimpse into the potential of what the Bulls' young core can become.
The most analogous model, at least for now, is probably the Damian Lillard/C.J. McCollum Portland Trailblazers. The Trailblazers this season have regressed, falling under .500 and to ninth in the Western Conference with Lillard now out injured.
But for the previous four seasons while not a championship threat, the Trailblazers carried by a pair of high scoring guards who aren't quite point guards with a supporting cast of modest role players have been a strong playoff competitor in a tough conference with a conference finals appearance.
It suggests at least now with the emergence of Coby White and the growth of Zach LaVine, the Bulls have the outlines of a team that should be taken more seriously. And potentially with a greater depth of talent than those Trailblazers given the presence of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. Added to them should be another lottery selection from this year's NBA draft given the current underperforming regular season.
"I don't know how good we (LaVine and White) can be, but I know we both individually want to be great; we put the work in," LaVine was saying after Tuesday night's 124-122 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans when the duo combined for 76 points. "Obviously, Coby is a rookie. But I know he can score with the best of them. I think we're both going to continue to get better because we work for it. You never know where it can go. But if it was my opinion, you can only go up because we both work extremely hard."
The Bulls didn't rise last week in losing a 17-point lead to Phoenix. But in the ashes of this underperforming 2019-20 regular season, there's perhaps a mythological like emergence ahead for these scorched and singed Bulls.
LaVine has been excellent all season despite the pressure of a half dozen missing teammates and defenses that look like crowds chasing him. LaVine is averaging a career high 25.5 per game. It is the highest franchise single season scoring average since Michael Jordan in 1998, exceeding the best of Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler.
LaVine finally might have a true partner in White, who has broken the chains of uncertainty with three consecutive games scoring at least 33 points. Of course, it's the proverbial small sample the just three games echo. But White had shown glimpses of that sort of scoring this season, even opening the season with games of 17 and 25 points and back to back games of at least 26 points a month later.
But in the miasma of injures and experiments, he often accepted reduced or changing responsibilities. Because the Bulls don't really have a point guard or so called lead guard in the model, of say, Chris Paul of the Thunder, White has been directed toward that sort of role. It's obviously been unnatural for him, though he has been a willing learner and worker.
Watching the brilliant Paul Tuesday, however, should make it clear White is no Chris Paul. Few are. But just because someone isn't what you need, it doesn't mean you can't appreciate them for who and what they are. White can be an amazing NBA scorer with his quickness and offensive nerve. You can't teach that. Nor can you teach someone to feel the floor like a true facilitating guard. It's like a spouse who is in love but wishes their partner were just a little different. It never works. You have to appreciate and enjoy people for who they are. The same with a basketball player. And lately White seems to be playing his way, which is with an eye on the basket more than the rest of the team.
It's worked well for Lillard and McCollum.
Neither particularly invites others to participate much, but neither did Allen Iverson. It didn't lead to a championship, but it led to the NBA Finals for Iverson with a team of hard working role players. Similarly with a team like the Trailblazers after LaMarcus Aldridge left for the San Antonio Spurs as a free agent. Lillard and McCollum, not particularly notes for their defense and both shorter than LaVine and White, carried a crew of mostly anonymous teammates despite their third best player injured to the Western Conference finals.
McCollum had come off the bench for two seasons, but then it was the high scoring, long distance shooting Lillard in the backcourt working together and separately and generally combining to average about 47 points per game.
Their best threes, fours and fives to round out starting lineups over four seasons were players like Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Allen Crabbe, Mason Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Mo Harkless and Enes Kanter.
White isn't at McCollum's scoring level yet, though McCollum was a four-year college player. But White certainly has shown indications that once unshackled from the rookie uncertainty of trying to become Chris Paul he perhaps has the ability to be more like another Paul, 70s scorer Paul Westphal.
"He's come off the bench, but he's playing crunch time minutes like a starter. I knew he had this in him."
We've seen these models before in the NBA be successful, if not ultimately so. There were the Celtics with Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker, the Raptors with Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, the Nuggets with Alex English and Kiki Vandeweghe, the Chet Walker and Bob Love Bulls, all high scoring teammates who had some success. LaVine and White this week, in fact, matched Walker and Love as the only Bulls teammates with back to back games scoring at least 30 points each.
What it suggests, if not promises, is that the core of young talent the Bulls have the way LaVine and White can score isn't that far away from the hopes the Bulls brought into this season. Even if it hasn't been realized. That even if there isn't that elusive and in demand One, there's a legitimate Two and Three—and maybe some who can grow into the One you want—to make it an attractive place.
"We saw how good Coby is," said LaVine, who has been a cheerleader all season for his nearby locker mate. "It's going to be hard for any rookie when the ball isn't just rolled out to him and he gets to play 36 minutes and gets to make his mistakes. He hasn't had that opportunity. But I think he's coming into his own now. He's come off the bench, but he's playing crunch time minutes like a starter. I knew he had this in him. It just took time for him to translate it.
"He's found his rhythm," said LaVine. "He's saying this is the type of player I am."
Which the Bulls hope can lead to the type of team they can become.
Leading NBA scoring duos since the All-Star break:
62.2: James Harden (34.7). Russell Westbrook (27.5, missing one game)
60.7: LeBron James (33.7). Anthony Davis (27.0)
57.7: Jayson Tatum (34.7). Jalen Brown (23.0)
57.0: Trae Young (34.3). John Collins (22.7)
56.3: Coby White (28.3). Zach LaVine (28.0)
55.1: Giannis Antetokounmpo (26.3). Khris Middleton (28.8)
54.0: C.J. McColllum (32.0). Carmelo Anthony (22.0)
49.6: Zion Williamson (27.3) and Brandon Ingram (22.3)
Bradley Beal (44.7) and anyone could have made the list, though he didn't have a No. 2. Joel Embiid (35.0) was without injured Ben Simmons. Totals are before Wednesday's games.
Got a question for Sam?
Submit your question to Sam at email@example.com
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.