With Sunday's loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Bulls (22-30) sit three games back of the Indiana Pacers for the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference, and four behind the New York Knicks for eighth. In a normal season, they'd be fading to the outermost fringe of contention for a playoff spot with 20 games remaining.
But this is no normal season.
In advance of the 2021 playoffs, the NBA is continuing its play-in tournament model as a way to drum up interest and competitiveness during a condensed, COVID-wracked campaign. Said model, which is slightly adapted from the last year's bubble, includes seed Nos. 9 and 10 in each conference, giving lower-wrung teams (see: Bulls) reason to push as the season approaches its dog days.
Unless the Bulls fall out of the top 10 in the East -- always possible, with the Toronto Raptors lurking two games back -- there's a good chance they take part in the showcase. Let's take a dive into how it works, FAQ style.
Who participates in the play-in?
Seed Nos. 7 - 10 in both conferences. The top six finishers in each conference are guaranteed spots in the first round of the best of seven playoffs.
How does the play-in work?
It's a two-round tournament, with four teams entering and two ultimately emerging as the seventh and eighth seeds in their respective conferences.
How it's decided is pretty simple. In the first round, the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds from the regular season play each other once, with the winner claiming the first of two playoff spots up for grabs (and seventh seed). Meanwhile, the No. 9 and No. 10 seeds play each other for the right to play the loser of the 7/8 game for the final spot.
So there's still incentive to get into the top eight. The fringe squads require two wins without a loss to vault from the "play-in" to the "playoffs," while seeds seven and eight need go 1-1 at minimum.
Where will the play-in be held?
Like the playoffs, the play-in is set to be held at home arenas, with the higher regular-season seed hosting each game. The NBA has no plans to bring back the bubble concept this year, especially with vaccine distribution continuing in earnest.
How does all this affect the lottery?
Like last season, the order for lottery odds will be determined after the eight playoff teams are cemented.
As an example: If the Bulls land 10th in the East in the regular season, but vault their way to eighth by way of a play-in tournament run, their first-round pick (which is owed to the Orlando Magic unless it lands in the top four) would fall outside the lottery, even though their regular-season record would have placed it there.
So, no, a play-in berth is not the same as a playoff berth. To claim the latter, you'd need to end the play-in in your conference's top eight. And it's possible to finish the regular season in the top eight, but end the play-in in the lottery.
How does all this affect the playoffs?
Hardly at all from a formatting perspective. Once the eight seeds are set, the playoffs proceed as normal.
If the Bulls don't pull out of the 9/10 regular-season throng, but make it through the play-in to claim the eighth seed, a date with the No. 1 seed in the East would await them. Currently, that title belongs to the Philadelphia 76ers (36-17), but the Brooklyn Nets are tied with them on record. The Milwaukee Bucks sit in third, three games back of the top spot.
When is the play-in happening?
As of this writing, the 2020-21 regular season is scheduled to conclude May 16, the play-in is scheduled to run from May 18 to May 21, and the playoffs are scheduled to begin May 22. A potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals -- the last day the season can end -- would fall on July 22.
What would the field look like if the season ended today, April 12?
In the East, the Boston Celtics (No. 7) and New York Knicks (No. 8) would duke it out for the first playoff spot, with the Indiana Pacers (No. 9) and Bulls (No. 10) vying for the chance to play the loser of that contest.
In the West, the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies would play the 7/8 game, with the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors battling out the 9/10 matchup.
So, what are the Bulls' chances?
To make the play-in? Pretty solid. Trailing by two games, the Raptors are their most legitimate competition for the final spot as of now, though the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers are technically within shouting distance.
According to Basketball Reference's Playoff Probabilities Report, the Bulls own the fourth-toughest remaining schedule in the East, while the Raptors rank second-toughest and the Pacers third-easiest. The Bulls have already clinched season-series victories -- and the tiebreaker -- over both, and have one matchup remaining with the Knicks (on April 28) that will decide their season series. The Knicks have the most difficult remaining schedule in the conference.
Once in the play-in (if the Bulls get there)... We'll see. Single-elimination means anything can happen, and the bottom of the East has been difficult to pin down all year. The Bulls have toppled the Pacers (twice), Raptors (twice) and Knicks already this season, and two matchups with the Celtics loom ahead.
But with rosters as fully-loaded as possible, and in a playoff environment, it would be interesting to see how the Bulls fare. Close games and winning teams have been their foil in a turbulent season.
One thing is certain: With an active trade deadline day that netted Nikola Vučević as the headliner, the Bulls set expectations higher than sneaking into the last spot of the play-in tournament moving forward -- especially if that's followed by a quick ouster. A stretch run featuring myriad opponents in their stratosphere will be telling.