The Eastern Conference used to be a running joke, or at best, called the “LeBron James Invitational” for the cakewalk James used to have through the playoffs on his way to the Finals.
It used to be just funny fodder.
Now, it really is a joke and the Bulls aren’t in on it—although they’re sure to be part of some laughers next season in the first year of a rebuild. They won’t be alone as the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks will likely follow the Bulls on the yellow brick road to the NBA Draft lottery after the 2017-18 season.
So that makes three of the eight playoff teams who have punted on next season, with All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap changing their addresses to go west, weakening an already-weak conference.
Of course, one could make the argument the Bulls could’ve kept Butler and climbed up through osmosis, positioning themselves to be prime players in free agency and the trade market but they refused to take advantage of a more murky road in front of them, choosing to be bad for the foreseeable future.
The view from here says the Bulls should’ve tried building around Butler as opposed to just having him as a piece to a puzzle, then seeing where things could grow from there.
Watching him continue to develop while putting adequate and fitting help around Butler would’ve been curious to watch and the Bulls could’ve achieved their desired goal of making themselves relevant when James’ Eastern Conference run ends soon—as early as the 2018 offseason, where he’s rumored to be taking his talents to the Western Conference to finish his career.
With salary cap space and an attractive market, the Bulls could’ve reformed themselves in the NBA marketplace with Butler as a main attraction, and one wonders if they should’ve made the same decision knowing what was coming in the East.
But facing the thought of giving him another large contract in two years scared them off, and the economics of the NBA has played a big part in how free agency has been handled for the first day or so, as the money has dried up quick—leading to more second-guesses as the Bulls believed teams would overspend and have to trade away good players in the near future, with the Bulls being contestant number one with that key word: Flexibility.
But now, they face the prospect of being one of many in the East trying to win the Michael Porter Jr. (incoming forward to Missouri) sweepstakes next season.
Someone has to win the round robin games between the likes of the Bulls, Pacers, Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and New York Knicks. The race to the bottom won’t be as easy as the Bulls might think, because there’s no guarantee the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers will take leaps past them.
Heck, it’ll be hard to find 12 Eastern Conference players worthy of being an All-Star next year, let alone eight true playoff teams. The Bulls had to scrap and claw to finish 41-41, and the fifth-seeded Hawks were 43-39, so it’s not hard to envision a team or two making the playoffs with losing records nowhere near the .500 mark—as well as teams who’d rather not make the playoffs qualifying for a first-round series.
Boston will be consistent and Cleveland will cruise through 82 games before James turns it up. Milwaukee, Washington and Toronto will be good enough, assuming they don’t have unexpected freefalls due to inconsistency, but the rest is a crapshoot.
So while the Bulls’ plan to be bad seems smart on the surface, lowering expectations while allowing some of the youth to develop in the meantime without the specter of a prime Butler hanging over them, it’s turned into a tricky proposition very quickly.
At some point, the Eastern Conference will rise again, but will be the Bulls be part of that resurgence, or questioning their not-so-subtle tanking strategy—because they're not the only ones with this bright idea.