Why Bulls' usage of Lauri Markkanen, Coby White creates questions

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K.C. Johnson
·4 min read
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Bulls' losing streak offers mix of optimism, pessimism originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

The next time the Bulls say Coby White is a point guard, remember that Denzel Valentine ran the offense as White played off the ball during crucial, fourth-quarter minutes of Friday’s 113-106 loss to the Jazz.

The next time the Bulls say they believe in Lauri Markkanen, remember that Valentine closed the game while Markkanen watched from the bench.

Thad Young continued his spectacular year with a season-high 25 points. Zach LaVine returned from missing one game with an ankle sprain to score 23 points. And while the Bulls still haven’t won since acquiring Nikola Vučević amid a difficult stretch of the schedule, they do now employ two All-Stars.

Is your Bulls’ fandom glass half-full or half-empty?

The middling Eastern Conference and inclusion of the play-in tournament, not to mention a schedule softening after Sunday’s home game against the Nets, provide hope. So does the fact rookie Patrick Williams continues to display flashes of brilliance alongside LaVine and Vučević.

But there’s no sugarcoating the larger issues of Markkanen’s uncertain future and the need for a dynamic lead guard.

Tomáš Satoranský is a rotation player for all 30 teams in the league and is a serviceable starter. White has proven he can be a dynamic reserve scorer. But the fact the Bulls engaged in trade talks for Lonzo Ball centered around Markkanen tells you all you need to know about both situations.

With LaVine back, Markkanen returned to his unexpected reserve role and scored just five points on five shots in 23 minutes. If Markkanen remains in this role, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Bulls match a large offer sheet for him this offseason in restricted free agency.

Lately, in a new wrinkle, coach Billy Donovan even has been using Markkanen at small forward.

“With all the cutting and moving that I think Lauri’s very effective at, we’ve tried to put him in some pindowns and we’ve tried to run him off screens. He’s done a nice job with that,” Donovan said. “But when you’re posting the ball at the basket, any post player needs space. So the floor’s got to get spaced. And I think our guys have done a pretty good job cutting. Lauri’s a good cutter for his size, too.

“The difference for him right now is he’s dealing with guys probably who are much more nimble and quicker on their feet and they’re more comfortable chasing off screens than maybe it was when he was at (power forward).”

And so an odd season for Markkanen continues.

As for White, he returned from missing two games with a stiff neck. Following the morning shootaround, he talked excitedly about playing with Vučević for the first time. And the affable guard always seems upbeat with a work ethic that Donovan consistently praises.

But White managed just four points and six shots with three assists and one turnover in just over 23 minutes. He also made some dubious decisions in the final quarter.

“I think he's OK. I mean right now he just came off the injury and we all know how hard it is if you miss a couple games to come back and you're playing a little injured,” LaVine said. “Coby's the type of the guy that he doesn't get too high, too low. He just cares about the team and regardless of his play -- obviously I know he wants to play a little bit better -- I think he'll get it going he'll be alright.”

Donovan hasn’t been one to criticize players publicly. He talked positively about both Markkanen and White postgame.

But he also gave a telling answer about the state of the Bulls’ playmaking ability.

“We have a very unselfish team, guys who move the basketball and pass the basketball. But we’re also not the kind of team that has a lot of creative playmakers off the dribble. It’s just not who we are,” Donovan said. “The guys who generate offense are generally our bigs, so we’ve had to play through them a little bit more.”

At some point, the Bulls will win a game with Vučević on the roster. It will probably feature another sterling performance from Young, who truly has been a joy to watch all season.

But question marks remain. So we ask again: Is your glass half-full or half-empty?

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