Can Chicago Bulls' lineup change reverse their worst-case scenario?
Before coach Billy Donovan changed the starting lineup Sunday, the Bulls' worst nightmare was coming true.
The four first-round draft picks weren't showing much progress. Coming back from all-star break, Wendell Carter Jr. was outplayed by backups, rookie Patrick Williams grabbed 3 rebounds in two games, and the Bulls' defense kept the door wide open for uncontested layups.
Contending for the playoffs is a long-awaited step forward, but too much of the improvement can be traced to veterans Thad Young and Garrett Temple. If the younger Bulls can't even be decent trade bait, there's not much hope for becoming a team that gets invited back to TNT Thursday night.
For a few years, we've talked about the need for veterans in the Bulls' lineup. There are no examples in NBA history of a team drafting a group of players and developing into a championship contender.
But at some point, the young guys need to apply what they've learned from the vets and take the lead. For the Bulls, this hasn't been happening much, and not at all against strong opponents.
Donovan began his postgame Zoom meeting Sunday by pointing out the Bulls' starting lineup of Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Williams and Carter had the worst net rating of any group of starters in the league. So White and Carter went to the bench against the Raptors, while Young and Tomas Satoransky started.
Beating Toronto didn't settle anything, since it might have been the most winnable game on the entire Bulls schedule. The Raptors were not only missing starters Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, they also were playing the second leg of back-to-back games.
The road will get tougher, with games against Denver and Utah, along with two sets of back-to-back games, in the coming week. The Bulls will host Oklahoma City on Wednesday.
Here are some specific issues to watch in the coming weeks:
• White is learning how to be a lead guard and that part hasn't been terrible. Scoring is supposed to be his forte, though, and he hasn't been able to push past 35 percent from 3-point range.
A fast-paced, high-scoring backcourt with White and LaVine still appears to be the Bulls' best hope for a better future. But there haven't been many glimpses of the version of White that finished last season on an efficient nine-game tear.
• There's reason to question whether the Bulls can ever be a good defensive team with Markkanen and Carter on the floor. Actually, that's a trick question, because it happened last year when they ranked fifth in the league in defensive rating until Carter suffered a high ankle sprain in January.
Carter has never been quite the same since that injury. Markkanen came back from the break shooting well from 3-point land, but he still ranks last on the Bulls in both plus-minus and net rating. With Markkanen headed to restricted free agency, it's starting to become a dilemma whether to keep him in Chicago and, if so, at what cost?
• Williams is just 19, so he needs some time, but it would be nice to see a little more aggressiveness. Williams has shown some great tools, but he spends too much time loitering on the 3-point line with the toolbox shut tight.
To reach his potential, Williams needs to start mixing it up under the basket and utilizing his running jumper, which has a chance to become an unstoppable weapon. After the lineup shuffle, the 6-foot-8 forward did score a season-high 23 points Sunday.
• LaVine rose to all-star level this season, but he still ranks last on the Bulls in defensive rating. He's not yet able to affect winning consistently.
For now, the answer to the Bulls' issues is breaking up the young guys and keeping a mix of veterans with both the starters and reserves. If this doesn't work, the next step is anyone's guess.
• Twitter: @McGrawDHBulls