Joakim Noah, unofficial team spokesman for the pulse of the Bulls locker room, swears they don't care where they're seeded in the playoffs. His head coach agrees. Bring on LeBron James and the piping-hot Cavaliers, Noah genuinely declares. The Bulls can beat anybody, All-Star guard Jimmy Butler proudly admits.
The Bulls' (over-)confidence isn't entirely unfounded. When healthy their starting lineup includes two 2015 All-Stars, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year and the 2012 league MVP. 23-year-old Rookie of the Year candidate Nikola Mirotic leads a bench with as much offensive firepower as Tom Thibodeau has had since taking over. They've got a top-five head coach, playoff experience to boot and, with the addition of Pau Gasol, a player who hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy five years ago. Of the teams with the 10 best records in the NBA (the Bulls own the 11th), they have at least one win against all but one of them.
With two games and three days remaining in the regular season, the Bulls are tied with Toronto for the third best record in the East. By way of the Raptors winning the Atlantic Division, the Bulls are currently slotted in the No. 4 seed and would need to finish with a better record than the Raptors - not a tie - to earn the No. 3 seed.
Much of the discussion regarding the Bulls and playoff seeding has stemmed from the thought of avoiding LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers as long as possible. Since James returned from a two-week hiatus in January the Cavaliers, locked in to the No. 2 seed, have the East's best record and, despite Kevin Love's and Kyrie Irving's lack of playoff experience, are the favorites to advance to the NBA Finals. In that sense the Bulls should want to avoid James and the favorites (and the No. 3 seed) as long as possible, which our own Mark Schanowski opined last month. That also assumes, however, that the Bulls are guaranteed a second-round opponent. That's where seeding comes into play.
Barring unforeseen circumstances in the final three days, the Washington Wizards and Milwaukee Bucks will finish 5th and 6th in the East, respectively (the Bucks have clinched the No. 6 seed). The Bulls took three of four from the Bucks this season, losing their most recent matchup in Milwaukee but otherwise owning the series, including a 46-point outing from Pau Gasol in January. They split four games with Washington, with the regular season matchups failing to create as much buzz as the preseason fiasco between Paul Pierce and Joakim Noah did. Still, there's bad blood between the two teams, to be sure. Ask Nene.
But before the Bulls can worry about when they'll face James and the Cavaliers, they need to get out of the first round. Owning home court advantage in that first round - which they'll clinch with wins in one of their last two games, or one Wizards loss - will make that an easier task, but last year's five-game loss to fifth-seeded Washington proved it's not everything.
The Wizards, who will play the No. 4 seed, have been on a roller coaster in 2015 under Randy Wittman, losing 10 of 12 between February and March that dropped them to where they are now. Since the All-Star break, when their brief tailspin began, they're 25th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. Losing Trevor Ariza to free agency this offseason (Houston) has proved to be a thorn in the side of a team that a year ago averaged nearly 101 points per game; this year they're down to 98.3 points per game and, despite the continued improvement of John Wall and Marcin Gortat, have taken a step back after beating the Bulls and taking the top-seeded Pacers to six games last season.
But Wittman's group still has plenty going for them heading into the postseason. Their calling card, defense, has been as good as ever; the Wizards rank fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, Bradley Beal overcame yet another injury scare with his leg and has averaged better than 19 points per game in his last seven, and they replaced Ariza with Paul Pierce, specifically for his playoff experience (148 playoff games and a title in 2008).
As proven last year, the Wizards match up perfectly with the Bulls. They're third in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage, with an inside combination of Gortat and Nene that can match the physicality of Gasol and Joakim Noah. Though they lost Trevor Booker in free agency, Kris Humphries and Kevin Seraphin have proven to be viable replacements inside off the bench. Wall leads the Eastern Conference in assists per game and can give Derrick Rose problems with his length, Beal has improved his shooting efficiency and the aforementioned Pierce gives the Wizards the same championship pedigree Gasol is hoping to provide the Bulls.
[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the playoffs, Bulls fans!]
Waiting for the No. 3 seed in the playoffs is a Bucks team that made a financial decision at the trade deadline to deal borderline All-Star Brandon Knight to Phoenix in a three-team deal that netted them Michael Carter-Williams, along with Tyler Ennis and Miles Plumlee. The Bucks, owners of the NBA's worst record a year ago, have been the East's biggest surprise, especially considering they lost Rookie of the Year frontrunner Jabari Parker to an ACL injury in January.
But while the deadline trade was a step forward for the future - the Bucks likely would have lost Knight this offseason for nothing - they took a step back in 2015. Since that trade, the Bucks are 27th in offensive efficiency (97.2) and fifth in defensive efficiency (99.7), a step down from their pre-trade defensive rating of 99.3, third in the NBA; before the trade the Bucks were 17th in offensive efficiency (102.1). The Bucks have gone 10-17 since making that trade, and despite a career year from Khris Middleton and the continued improvement of Giannis Antetokounmpo, just aren't the same team. Knight was the catalyst for the offense and a plus-defender.
Furthermore, the Bulls match up well with the Bucks. Zaza Pachulia has proven to be a capable center in place of the waived Larry Sanders, but Pau Gasol averaged 24.3 points on 55 percent shooting and 13.3 rebounds in four games against Milwaukee, his highest point total against an opponent he faced more than once. Seven games against Pachulia is drastically different than seven games against Gortat. Carter-Williams, Middleton and the Greek Freak provide one of the longer backcourts in the NBA defensively, but if the Bulls are going to get into low-scoring games they'd much rather do it against a team that's topped the 100-point total six times in their last 27 games (Milwaukee) than one that beat them at that game a year ago in the playoffs (Washington).
The point is, the Bulls will need to go through LeBron James at some point this postseason to reach the Finals. That was the case in 2010, 2011 and 2013, and all three times they failed to dethrone King James. But in order to have that chance in 2015 as Noah so badly wants, they need to get there first. This isn't an infallible Bulls team; losses to the Kings, Jazz, Magic (twice), Lakers and Hornets have proven as much. Their best course of action is to grab the No. 3 seed - with a little help from the Raptors - and set themselves up with an easier first-round opponent, then deal with the Cavaliers in Round 2. Getting by the Wizards and the woefully under-appreciated top-seeded Hawks is a tall order for a Bulls team still dealing with chemistry issues less than a week away from the postseason, should they remain in fourth place.
A healthy Bulls team should make it out of the first round, whether it's against the Wizards or Bucks.
Still, though they may not want to admit it, seeding matters for the Bulls.