With 14 games left in the regular season, the Chicago Bulls sit at 40-28 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference. While Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose have been ruled out for their next game against the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday evening, K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune seems to believe that at least Gibson and Butler aren’t that far away from stepping back onto the court.
This is good news for the Bulls, who have gone 4-7 since Rose went down and are 1-5 in their last six. If they can get all three of those guys back on the court with a handful of games left, we can still grasp at straws and hope that the team could get things together and make a serious run at the NBA Finals. But even for that all to work out, what would that run through the playoffs entail?
As I mentioned, the Bulls currently sit in the fourth spot. The Atlanta Hawks seemingly have the No. 1 seed locked up, holding an 11-game lead over the second-place Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs lead the division over the Bulls by 2½ games, and barring a serious run by the Bulls and a bit of a crash by the Cavs, it looks like Cleveland is going to win the division.
As far as playoff seeding goes, the Bulls could realistically fall anywhere from third to fifth. They’re currently a half-game behind the Toronto Raptors for the three seed and a half-game ahead of the Washington Wizards for the five seed. The Bulls still hold a five-game lead over the Milwaukee Bucks, who currently occupy the six seed. With just over a month left in the season, I think it’s completely reasonable to start wondering “What’s the most ideal scenario for the Bulls?”
If the regular season finished with teams locked into their current standings, the Bulls would begin the playoffs with home-court advantage on the Wizards. This is the matchup between the “four and five” seeds, which places the winner of this series up against the winner of the “one and eight” matchup. If this all sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same matchup the Bulls drew last year. The Bulls got blasted in the first round by the Wizards, looking slow against John Wall and Bradley Beal and unable to rebound against Nene and the Wizards frontcourt.
The Wizards have struggled in the second half of the season, despite having most of their team healthy, having gone just 10-15 since late January. It’s worth pointing out that things have been better lately, and that they have won five of their last six games. However, only one of those games came against a team with a winning record. A matchup against the Wizards in the first round is less than ideal, but it’s not doomsday. This is a very winnable series if they’re playing at full health, but that’s always the key for them, isn’t it?
The potential second-round matchup, in this scenario, would be the Hawks. (Barring an upset by the currently-eighth-seeded Heat.) It’s hard to know how the Hawks will perform in the playoffs, but we do know the Bulls have had their troubles with Atlanta. The Bulls are 0-2 against them this season and are averaging a 7.5-point deficit in those two games. We also know that the Hawks’ not-so-secret weapon is Kyle Korver, who’s shooting 50 percent on three-pointers this season and is hitting an average of three of them per game. We’ve seen Korver be neutralized in the playoffs before, and the Bulls should have first-hand knowledge about how that can be done.
Should the Bulls find a way past the Hawks, the Eastern Conference Finals would likely feature the Cavs or the Raptors as the opponent. Like their matchup with Atlanta, the Bulls wouldn’t have home-court advantage against either of these teams. As hard as it is to see the Bulls getting past the Hawks, it’s even harder to imagine them getting past the Cavs. However, if something odd happens and the Raptors knock the Cavs out in the second round, it’s not all that hard to imagine the Bulls getting past Toronto. But this entire scenario requires a massive leap of faith.
If the Bulls can finish ahead of Toronto, they’d open the playoffs at home against Milwaukee. The Bucks, similar to the Wizards, have been in free-fall mode since the trade deadline. After winning nine of 10 from Jan. 27 through Feb. 20, the Bucks have gone just 3-9 since. They lost Jabari Parker for the season awhile ago, and their action at the trade deadline implies that they’re looking at their long-term future as a franchise.
Assuming the Bulls can move past the Bucks in the first round, the second round features the dreaded matchup with LeBron and the Cavs. (Again, barring an upset by the currently-seventh-seeded Boston Celtics.) The only hope the Bulls have against the Cavs, again assuming full health, is that the lack of playoff experience from the majority of their roster, the tactical advantage the Bulls have with Tom Thibodeau against David Blatt, and the fresh legs of Rose and Butler are enough to carry them through the series.
All in all, I think that reaching and grabbing the third seed is the best-case scenario for the Bulls. The Bucks are an easier first-round matchup than the Wizards, and Bulls fans should be rooting for the scenario with better probability of getting through to the second round. A matchup against either the Cavs or the Hawks are likely a death sentence for Chicago at this point, so I’d rather land the easier first-round matchup and take my chances that, just maybe, something odd might happen (like an injury to LeBron, for example) that allows them to move to the Eastern Conference Finals.
When you take into consideration that any scenario that allows the Bulls to move to the Eastern Conference Finals would require an injury or “something odd” to happen, it becomes painfully obvious that they just aren’t serious contenders. But the fun thing about the playoffs is that anything can happen. So until they’ve been knocked out, we can keep looking down the road at the best-case scenario. Hopefully, the Bulls can finally catch some breaks.