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Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

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AP

Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

When your team is no longer in playoff contention it's always a good time to look forward. The Bulls finally have a direction after trading Jimmy Butler on draft night and will go to a youth movement to build the talent pool back up. And with free agency pretty much wrapped up (although Derrick Rose is making noise) it's time to look at where Fred Hoiberg's group stands among the teams looking for the most ping-pong balls on Lottery night next May.

The numbers in parentheses are the projected over-under win totals in Las Vegas:

Brooklyn Nets (20.5 wins)

The good news? Brooklyn had an excellent offseason. The bad news? It's going to take way more than one good string of moves to fix this mess. In dealing Brook Lopez and a first-round pick for D'Angelo Russell, the Nets gave away their best player for one with a bright future. Drafting Jarrett Allen was another solid move, but he's barely 19 and is more of a project than anything right now. Taking on DeMarre Carroll's and Timofey Mozgov's contracts provide them more talent, but neither should get much playing time during the youth movement. It may be tough for this team to get to 20 wins.

Phoenix Suns (25.5 wins)

There might not be a better young core in the Western Conference than in Phoenix. With Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson (all lottery picks) leading the way, there's optimism about the Suns' future. It just might not lead to many victories in 2017-18. Bender is 19 and the others are 20, and veterans Eric Bledsoe and Tyson Chandler are prime trade candidates. Phoenix is going somewhere, but expect them to pick in the top 3 a year from now.

Chicago Bulls (28.5 wins)

It's difficult right now to project how many wins the Bulls will tally. Restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic is still unsigned, and there are questions about whether Dwyane Wade will be bought out at some point during the season. Zach LaVine's timetable on returning from ACL surgery is still unknown, and the Bulls will take a cautious approach in bringing him back. Robin Lopez could also be dealt at some point. The young guns are going to get all the run they can handle, helping the rebuild while not doing much in the win department.

Sacramento Kings (30.5 wins)

The Kings went 8-17 after dealing DeMarcus Cousins, which projects to a 26-win season over an 82-game span. The good news is Scott Perry made this roster a whole lot better before leaving for the Knicks. Drafting De'Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles and Frank Mason III, and signing George Hill, Vince Carter and Zach Randolph has this roster looking as deep as it's been in quite some time. They're in the West, which makes things more difficult, but they're a good bet to make serious improvement in 2017.

Indiana Pacers (31.5 wins)

Like the Bulls, the Pacers began their rebuilding phase after dealing a star in Paul George. Indiana grabbed an established two-way guard in Victor Oladipo (25 years old) and 21-year-old Domantas Sabonis, Potential trade candidates are Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic. Myles Turner is a budding star, while young players in T.J. Leaf, Ike Anigbogu and Glenn Robinson III will get plenty of playing time. Those four matchups against the Bulls could loom large as far as the Lottery balls are concerned.

Los Angeles Lakers (32.5 wins)

It looks like the Lakers hit on both their first-round draft picks, as Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma had monster Summer Leagues. Add Brook Lopez, who was outstanding last season, to a talented young core and it appears the Lakers are trending in the right direction. It wouldn't be surprising to see Los Angeles compete for a playoff spot. Plus, the Lakers have no incentive to tank, as their first-round pick in 2018 will go to Philadelphia or Boston. Expect them to move past the Bulls in the win total.

New York Knicks (32.5 wins)

Not sure about this one. It still seems there's a good chance Carmelo Anthony gets dealt, and depending on what they get back in a deal their second best player (behind Kristaps Porzingis) will be $71 million man Tim Hardaway Jr. They won 31 games a year ago, and it's hard to imagine they're better without Anthony, regardless of how inefficient he's become.

Atlanta Hawks (34.5 wins)

No team in the league took a bigger hit from where they were a year ago to now than the Hawks. After winning 43 wins and earning the No. 5 seed in the East, Atlanta lost Paul Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. to free agency and traded Dwight Howard. Essentially it's Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and a ton of question marks. Taurean Prince, DeAndre' Bembry and rookie John Collins are a good core, but this is going to be an ugly season in the ATL.

Dallas Mavericks (34.5 wins)

We'll go ahead and assume restricted free agent Nerlens Noel returns. So, too, is Dirk Nowitzki back for another year, and the Mavs look like they have a steal in rookie Dennis Smith Jr. They've entered a rebuild, which owner Mark Cuban admitted, but their talent across the board might be enough to get them to the 33 wins they had a year ago. Playing in the West makes it more difficult to project, but they should tally more wins than the Bulls simply on their talent pool.

Orlando Magic (34.5 wins)

This Las Vegas win total is a little confusing. Orlando made nice moves in the offseason, drafting Jonathan Isaac and signing Jonathon Simmons. But that's about it, and the Magic were lucky to win 29 games a year ago. True, they're in a depleted Eastern Conference but it's hard to see Frank Vogel turning around the franchise this quickly. That being said, their young players (Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja and Aaron Gordon) have NBA experience, so maybe they make a jump and it results in wins.

Bulls clinch playoff berth with blowout win over Nets in regular-season finale

Bulls clinch playoff berth with blowout win over Nets in regular-season finale

One wonders when the minds of the Bulls players and coaches shifted from the Brooklyn Nets to the upcoming playoff opponent, the Boston Celtics.

It could’ve been five minutes into the game or five hours before, when they realized the Nets weren’t making any special additions to their lineup while sitting their top players.

Either way, they didn’t put forth their best performance in a 112-73 win, where the led wire-to-wire, clinching a playoff spot with a 41-41 record—one game worse than last season but enough to make the playoffs in an underwhelming Eastern Conference.

“Now the fun begins,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said, as Game 1 on Sunday evening starts the enjoyment against the Celtics in Boston, with Game 2 being Tuesday at TD Garden.

The Bulls were 34-39 a month ago, losers of five straight that included a 100-80 thrashing on a Sunday afternoon that wasn’t as close as the 20-point spread.

“I just told the guys how proud I am of them, our backs were against the wall,” Hoiberg said. “It was a great job of being resilient by our players, hanging in there and sticking in there and finding a way to battle all the way to the last day.”

They finished off their season like they started it—with more questions than answers, stumbling out after tipoff but thankfully for them, they played a team without Jeremy Lin, Brook Lopez and a few others who could’ve made the night miserable.

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Instead, it allowed the Bulls to shoot just 36 percent through three quarters but have such a comfortable lead that none of the starters were truly needed in the fourth quarter.

Jimmy Butler concluded his best season as a pro with a 25 point, six-rebound and four-assist showing, with career-high averages in all three categories. Had the Bulls record been better and Butler not gone through a mini-slump after the All-Star break, he’d be on the back end of some Most Valuable Player conversation.

“I think we all are seeing the evolution of Jimmy Butler,” said Wade in the morning shootaround. “I can’t say anybody, even Jimmy, knew that he would be this player right now. The biggest thing that surprised me is he’s a clutch player. For a guy who hasn’t had a lot of clutch moments in his career, he’s as clutch as it gets.”

He’ll have to settle for getting this rag-tag bunch into a playoff showdown with the Celtics, a team they probably feel confident against—or as confident as an eighth seed should against a top seed.

Presumably, Wednesday shouldn’t be an indication of how the Bulls are going to play but it appears their rotation is set the right way as Rajon Rondo returned from a right wrist injury to play 19 minutes and scored 10 points with five assists and six rebounds.

His backup, Jerian Grant, got valuable playing time in his stead and although he was right with the muck of the night, his 3-point shooting over the last couple weeks elevated him past Michael Carter-Williams for backup minutes.

And with Wade still working himself back into decent shape and rhythm, Paul Zipser had a career night, helping break the game open in the first quarter to score eight of his career-high 21 points off the bench in 29 minutes. The lead kept increased through the night against the undermanned Nets, who were led by Archie Goodwin’s 20 and K.J. McDaniels’ 15 points off the bench.

With the inconsistency of the season costing them throughout, it wasn’t a fatal blow as they get new life this weekend in Boston, with a chance to craft a new narrative and make the season a surprising success.

Bulls not getting overconfident against undermanned Nets: 'Our team understands what's at stake'

Bulls not getting overconfident against undermanned Nets: 'Our team understands what's at stake'

The Bulls are treating the season finale against the Brooklyn Nets like any other game, even though a playoff berth is on the line.

Same preparation, same way they're going about things and despite the Nets resting the top six players on a team that's only won 20 games, the Bulls are saying all the right things about respecting their opponent.

But it's difficult to do so when the Nets are letting their main talent, guys like Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez for starters, sport their finest threads as opposed to trying to play spoiler for the Bulls at the United Center.

It certainly seemed probable the Nets could beat the Bulls for the second time in five days but the talent that they'll roll out tonight doesn't match up with what the Bulls have, even if the talent is underachieving.

"Well, the big thing is, it doesn't change our approach," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "We have a gameplan in place for whoever takes the floor for Brooklyn. We know it's a group that's going to come out and play extremely hard and they're going to play with great pace. Our coverages change a little bit just based on some of the things we think they'll do, but it's going to be a high-level game. We need to go out and approach it just like last week. Get a defensive mindset, hopefully get off to a great start and sustain it for 48 minutes."

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No word on whether Hoiberg sent Nets coach Kenny Atkinson a gift basket to the team hotel when the Nets arrived, helping Hoiberg likely clinch his first playoff spot since taking over as Bulls coach in 2015.

But whatever Hoiberg's internal feelings are, he's telling his team it can't let its guard down against an undermanned ballclub. Even though it seems highly unlikely, the Bulls could lose and miss out on the postseason for the second straight year—but that would be outright lunacy at this point.

"Our team understands what's at stake. It's obviously a win or go home type game," Hoiberg said. "They understand the urgency, the effort that we have to come out with. Again, I loved our approach in the game the other night. We have to do the same thing, the same mentality, coming out, hopefully getting off to a great start. We're a much better team when that happens. Hopefully our guys, you know, again, they've done a good job in this recent stretch and hopefully that doesn't change."