NBA play-in format for 2020-21 helps Bulls’ playoff chances


The 2020-21 NBA season will mark the fourth since the Bulls catalyzed their current rebuild with a draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. The previous three did not feature a playoff berth.

Can new leadership across the front office and coaching staff stymie that trend? ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported a positive development for the Bulls’ quest to return to the postseason early Sunday morning:

A play-in tournament similar -- but not identical -- to the one conducted during the 2019-20 restart to decide final playoff spots appears all but “a formality.”

Here’s how Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe explained the format of the play-in in a report from Nov. 2:

The tournament would begin with No. 7 hosting No. 8, and the winner locking into the No. 7 spot. Meanwhile, No. 9 would face No. 10, with the winner advancing to play the loser of the 7-versus-8 matchup for the No. 8 seed, sources have told ESPN.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe, ESPN

Assuming that format holds, the Nos. 7 or 8 seed would have to lose twice to fall out of the playoff picture, while the Nos. 9 or 10 would have to win twice to vault into the bracket. As of this writing, there doesn’t appear to be any "games back" condition on participation, as there was in the 2020 play-ins (e.g. the Washington Wizards didn’t get a shot at a play-in in the East because they didn’t finish the restarted regular season within four games of the Orlando Magic).

Depending on which teams land where, gaining entry from the ninth or tenth spots could be a tall task. But the point stands: The Bulls need to finish 10th or higher in the Eastern Conference regular season standings for a shot at snapping their playoff drought.


Last season, the team finished its truncated, 65-game slate 22-43, 11th in the conference and one game back of the then-10th place Charlotte Hornets (23-42). In 2018-19, the Miami Heat finished 10th in the East with a 39-43 record; in 2017-18, it was the Hornets again with a 36-43 record. 

Over the past five seasons, the tenth-place team in the Eastern Conference has averaged 38 wins on the nose -- good for a .463 winning percentage in an 82-game schedule. This year, with each team playing 72 regular season games before the play-ins, that translates to roughly 33.4 wins. There's work to do, but that's about the bar to clear.

Bulls regular-season finishes since start of rebuild



Winning Percentage

72-Game Wins Pace

Place in Standings

GB (of 10th)



















This Bulls season begins with optimism up and down the roster and management ladder. And talk organizational progress would only swell with a playoff berth. As it stands now, they’ll be well-positioned to have a chance.

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