How White is finding fit alongside LaVine, Vučević originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
Finding a cohesive starting five has been an ever-present strain on the Bulls all season. A combination of underperformance, player absences and roster overhaul has led Billy Donovan to deploy 14 different first units in 67 games.
But in the team's current two-game winning streak, Donovan has found one that's gelling in Coby White, Zach LaVine, Patrick Williams, Daniel Theis and Nikola Vučević. Not only does that unit boast two-way balance, it also features a potent offensive nucleus of LaVine, Vučević and White. They started together for the first time against the Hornets on Thursday, and lineups featuring the three own a net rating of plus-18.9 in their last two games, scoring at a rate of 111.6 points per 100 possessions while holding opponents to 92.6.
"It's flowing the right way," Zach LaVine said of the trio after closing the back-to-back with a 121-99 thumping of the Boston Celtics. "We're recognizing when one guy has it going or another guy and just playing off each other."
LaVine is still finding his footing following a bout with COVID-19 that kept him out three weeks, but looked more himself against Boston. Vučević has picked up right where he left off after a two-game absence induced by hip soreness. As established, All-Star caliber players, they're relatively known quantities on a night-to-night basis.
More notable a revelation of late is White. His second season has been defined by the growing pains of learning the point guard position at the NBA level, a process that has manifested in shoddy defensive play, inconsistent shooting and at times head-scratching decision-making. Donovan pulled him from the starting lineup on March 14.
But White re-entered upon LaVine's 11-game absence and played some of his best basketball of the season in all facets. With LaVine back, he's stuck with the starters and continued to fit in snugly.
The Celtics win embodied White's ideal impact on the current roster; he notched 25 points, made seven 3-pointers and dished five assists, trading scoring spurts with LaVine (who also posted 25 points) and reeling in dimes from the Vučević, who tallied three of his 10 assists on White 3s. The triumvirate combined for 68 of the team's 121 points, their second game in a row crossing 120, and keyed several game-defining runs.
"All three of us got it going tonight," White said. "I just came out first quarter just trying to play off those guys. Those guys are such talented players that can both score the ball at a high rate. I just try to play off those guys and get those guys the ball."
Indeed, to LaVine in pick-and-roll and Vučević in the post, double-teaming defenders often flock like moths to a lamp. That opens spot-up pockets and slashing lanes for teammates that can be exploited with crisp ball movement. Five of White's seven 3s Friday night were assisted upon, with four defined by NBA.com as catch-and-shoots (one the fifth, he took one dribble). White is shooting 36.5 percent on catch-and-shoot triples this season, 40.5 percent (5.7 attempts) in his last 13 games.
"Hat's off to them," White said. "They're two All-Stars, but they're super unselfish and they always just make the right play. Both of them attract a lot of attention on the court, so for me I just try to pick my spots and try to get windows where they can find me for shots or just for driving lanes. They attract so much attention that it opens up the floor a lot and it opens up the paint."
This was a key part of the theory under which Artūras Karnišovas made the move for Vučević at the trade deadline, even if addressing the point guard position is still widely reported to be an area of emphasis this offseason for a front office that isn't finished reshaping the roster.
"Getting another additional facilitator on offense like Nikola, it's going to make guard play much easier," Karnišovas said on March 25. "How do you define point guard? Who brings the ball up and just initiates the offense, right? So I think it's just gonna make it a little bit easier for everybody by getting a facilitator like Nikola."
With Vučević, the Bulls' pace has slowed. Playing alongside him -- both off the ball and on, where Vučević's pick-and-pop and post-up ability makes reads simpler -- has slowed the game down for White personally as well.
"There's always room for progress, so I know I got a long way to go, but it's just slowing down," White said. "I'm just trying to focus on making the simple reads out there on the court and just get who needs the ball in the spots where they want it."
The Bulls' playoff chances remain slim, and late-season small-sample size fodder won't move the needle for most. But seeing the vision of the roster's three most dynamic offensive players come to fruition -- and evaluating the parameters under which it does -- has some value down the stretch.