Coby White is the biggest key in the Chicago Bulls 2023-24 turnaround

Once an afterthought among a plethora of talented guards in the Chicago Bulls rotation, Coby White is now the biggest difference maker in their success.

Houston Rockets v Chicago Bulls
Houston Rockets v Chicago Bulls / Jamie Sabau/GettyImages
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The Chicago Bulls season was bleak to start. Rough shooting from their role players, lack of cohesion on offense and their terrible defense had them in a tailspin. With DeMar DeRozan being a free agent, their window for competing with their current nucleus was closing. Trade rumors were rampant. Alex Caruso was, and still is their most prized possession. Zach LaVine, who is in just his second season of a five-year, $215 million deal that he signed in the summer of 2022, wasn't meshing well and was being hypothetically shipped to every team competing for a playoff spot. And for good reason, since they were 5-14, 13th in the East.

Their latest defeat was bad enough, getting routed 124-97 by the Boston Celtics in the final In-Season Tournament game of Group Play. Though the league implemented the IST to precisely spice up matchups like these, a Nov. 28 matchup in Boston, that extra incentive ($500 thousand for each player of the winner of the whole thing) couldn't help Chicago. To pile on, they lost LaVine to a right leg injury. And, to go even further, they were the butt of the joke as the Celtics were intentionally fouling with the game decided. Not great.

But then *dramatic pause*... a switch flipped. The Bulls started playing well. No, that's putting it too lightly — they proceeded to play the best ball they've played in almost two calendar years. They won their next four, the first time they won at least three consecutive games since February 2022, and have since gone 13-7. They haven't been world beaters, nor a serious contender in the East, but have been a far cry from how they were playing the first month of the season.

Their defense has actually been pretty good all season, which isn't surprising considering they've had a top-15 defensive rating in two of the three full seasons Billy Donovan has coached them. Right now they boast a 113.9 defensive rating, which is tied for 13th in the league. During their last 20, their defense has stayed at that level, as they boast a 112.1 defensive rating in that span (which is fifth for all teams since Nov. 29).

It improved just a point, but it's also improved in keeping the ball in front and making multiple efforts to bother shots. It also helped to replace an average-at-best defender in LaVine with an elite defender in Caruso in the starting lineup. That has propelled them to allow less explosive outings from opponents: in the 19 games before the Boston one, they allowed at least 115 points on 10 occasions. Since then, in 20 games, it's been reduced to seven.

The offense, on the other hand, has improved drastically. Heading into the Celtics game, the Bulls had an offensive rating of 109.3 in 18 games, good for 26th in the league. Since that pummeling, they boast one of 114.3. While the defense was easier to explain, the offense is more perplexing in a simple view. After all, they lost their star scorer who up to Nov. 28 was averaging 22.1 points on 45/34/87 shooting.

Zooming in, there's a solid theory to understand why a team could improve on offense when losing a star player — more players have to step up and contribute to keep scoring. Next man up, as many players and coaches would say when a significant injury happens to their team. In the Bulls' case, that next man up was Coby White.

Coby's elite stretch, explained

That isn't to say White was lacking opportunities with LaVine in the lineup, whether because of lack of shots or playing time. He entered his fifth season with the team after signing a very discounted extension for a seventh overall pick (three years, $36 million) and years of inconsistency. In spite of that, after a strong finish to last regular season (14 points and 5.2 assists on 52/42/100 shooting), and after the loss of Patrick Beverley in free agency and preferring Caruso as the sixth man, White was given the starting point guard spot. Yet, in his first 19 games of the season, he wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary with his 13.7 points on 42 percent from the field. But everything changed after that Celtics game.

White has had an elite stretch since then, one that measures up with the best of the best. In his last 20 games, he's averaging 23 points, 6.1 rebounds and 5.9 assists on 46.7 percent from the field, 41.6 percent from 3 (on 8.1 attempts!) and 82.4 percent from the foul line. Six games before that, White started a streak of 14 straight games making at least three 3-pointers, which is a Bulls franchise record. At the start of January, he became the sixth player in franchise history to score 4,000 points by age 23. This stretch has played a large part in White having a career season in both averages, efficiency and volume.

To further illustrate that: White is sixth in 3-pointers made, 13th in attempts and fifth in percentage out of players with at least 250 attempts at 40.2 percent. For context, only six players are shooting over 40 percent (rounding up Steph Curry's 39.8) from 3 on at least many attempts, and White is third in both attempts and makes between them (in front of him are Curry and Paul George, two elite proven shooters). He's hitting both catch-and-shoot (40.3 percent) and pull-ups (39.2 percent) at an extraordinary level.

On top of that, his effort on defense has been better to match that of his teammates. And while his net rating this season isn't as great as it was last season, he's well on pace for a career-high in minutes (he's currently 13th in the league playing 35.4 minutes per game), so that has time to change.

The easy analysis is to say that he's just making more shots. While that's technically true, he's taken more shots and managed to improve his efficiency, he's also gotten better at processing the game. He seems more relaxed on offense, with the game slowing down for him and him taking what the defense has given him, but most of all making them pay. However, the way that's happened goes beyond just Coby...

How the Bulls changed their approach on offense without LaVine

Though I've previously laid in on Donovan for the lack of offensive success he's had with his teams, I'll be the first to give credit where credit is due. In this case, I'll be the first to give credit to him and his coaching staff for not only staying afloat without LaVine, but in improving since then, and even after his return from injury.

The most understandable stat to look at is their assists per game. For the season, Chicago dishes out a measly 23.7 assists, which is second to last in the league. Up until Nov. 28, they were at 21.9, which at that point was just a mere decimal in front of the last place Portland Trail Blazers (21.8). Since then, however, they upped that to 25.5 assists per contest. Even with LaVine back in the lineup, they're still sharing the ball at a high level, averaging 29 assists since he returned. More broadly, their number of passes made per game spiked: they were at 281.4 (16th) after the Boston game, but since then are at 296.8 (sixth).

White himself has doubled his assist average from last season (2.8 to 4.9), but it's also been a bit about the Bulls returning to their principles by initiating plays from the elbow, particularly with Nikola Vucevic as a high-post hub that can shoot, attack off the bounce and go into a dribble handoff with whoever and the offense can go through there.

They played to that in 2021-22, the season they made the playoffs, averaging 12.8 (seventh) elbow touches per game as a team. That number was just 9.7 last season, 17th. This year it's at 11.7, tied for sixth. Outside of the half-court, White has been lethal in transition, ranking 11th in the league this season in points per possession (1.28) among players with at least 100 transition possessions (according to NBA.com). For context, last season he was at 1.15 points per possession (well outside the top 50).

DeRozan, even though he's still getting his during their hot stretch, deserves credit for taking less of a load than what would've been expected of him with LaVine out, allowing White and the other guards to create while he plays off them in the corner. While there may be some criticism in regard to White's usage in the fourth quarter, he's still heavily involved in the offense without the ball. And, at minimum, he's an elite spot-up shooter who can hit daggers.

With improved play, Coby has been given ample space to cook. And, with the right ingredients provided by Donovan, he's been cooking something pretty neat.

The outlook for White and the Bulls for this season, and the future

This leap has been remarkable to see in White because of the guard depth the Bulls have, and have had. Just on this roster, they have four point guards that are constants in their rotation, including a free-agency acquisition in Jevon Carter. Last season, they also had four, including a post All-Star break add via de buyout market in Patrick Beverley.

Beverley was the starter over White in the 22 games he suited up for them in the regular season, and Ayo Dosunmu was averaging between 26 and 27 minutes in his first two seasons as a Swiss army knife on both ends. But, that number has been reduced to 22 this season and they didn't acquire a starting caliber guard to open that runway for White.

So, in regards to the future, White fits in whatever path the Bulls take. If they decide to keep competing this season, he's shown he can be the difference maker in their success, and arguably their third most important player (behind Vucevic and DeRozan, in that order). On the other hand, if they commit to the rebuild by looking to ship free-agent-to-be DeRozan, find a trade partner for LaVine and selling Caruso to the highest bidder, White can at least be their stop gap while they find the lead guard of the future, and be able to play alongside or start with stars in other positions. He's just 23 years old and is on a team-friendly deal for two more seasons.

Staying in the present, White should be among the main two candidates for the Most Improved Player award this season. He's doubled his scoring average while increasing his efficiency, which is absurd on it's own, while also leading his team to wins. He's also what a MIP candidate should be, which is a young player that wasn't getting opportunities or playing well out of nowhere putting it all together (either because of more playing time, shots or simply better play). He's showcased what he can do at a high level, and he hasn't stopped. Remarkable to see. The wonders that giving a young player (especially a guard) time to figure things out in the NBA can do.

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