One year ago the Bulls came out of the All-Star break with a 20-37 record and in a dead heat for the top Lottery odds. When play resumed on Feb. 22, here’s what those standings looked like:
Phoenix – 18-41 – 0 GB
Atlanta – 18-41 – 0 GB
Dallas – 18-40 – 0.5 GB
Orlando – 18-39 – 1 GB
Sacramento – 18-39 – 1 GB
Brooklyn – 19-40 – 1 GB
Memphis – 18-38 – 1.5 GB
Chicago – 20-37 – 3 GB
Eight teams separated by just 3 games, with the difference in odds for the top pick being 25 percent (No. 1) and 2.8 percent (No. 8) and the difference for a top-3 pick being 64.3 percent (No. 1) and 9.9 percent (No. 8).
There was a whole lot at stake, and the Bulls made sure they positioned themselves as best they could to “improve” their positioning by the end of the season. It included playing Cristiano Felicio 24.2 minutes per game, including 27.9 in the final seven games, and Cameron Payne 23.3 minutes per game after not playing a single minute prior to the All-Star break thanks to foot surgery.
Kris Dunn played the first 11 games after the All-Star break but was then shut down with a turf toe injury, missing the final 14 games. Likewise, Zach LaVine also missed the final 14 games with knee soreness. Lauri Markkanen finished the season averaging 24.3 minutes in his final eight games, down from 30.4 before his back spasms.
It was a nightmare. It was tanking. It did nothing to move along the rebuild and, worst of all, the Bulls went 7-18 after the break and wound up tied with the Kings for the seventh best odds on Lottery Night. We all know how that went down, though the Bulls are plenty happy with Wendell Carter Jr. as a consolation prize.
This season it’s different. The Bulls come out of the All-Star break with a 14-44 record and sit comfortably with the fourth worst record in the NBA. Here’s what the standings look like:
Phoenix – 11-48 – 0 GB
New York – 11-47 – 0 GB
Cleveland – 12-46 – 0 GB
Chicago – 14-44 – 2 GB
Atlanta – 19-39 – 7 GB
Memphis – 23-36 – 10 GB
We can forget about the Bulls “catching” either the Suns or Knicks. Phoenix has lost a whopping 15 in a row and the Knicks had lost 18 in a row before catching lightning in a bottle and beating the Hawks before the break. Even if the Bulls lost out (they won’t), it’s tough to see the Suns or Knicks winning three games the rest of the way.
There’s Cleveland, which has actually shown some fight the last two weeks and won three games after a 1-18 stretch. But no team understands the power of holding the top pick quite like Cleveland, and you can bet the tank will be on in full effect over their final 24 games. It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Cavs win two more games than the Bulls to finish the season.
And below the Bulls (or above them, depending on how you look at it), the Hawks are cruising. They’ve got bona fide pieces in Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Taurean Prince. They’ve gone a respectable 5-7 over their last 12 games and certainly won’t be five games worse than the Bulls over the final two months.
So what does that all mean? That the Bulls are pretty much locked in to the No. 4 slot in the Lottery order. For those at home, that’s a 12.5 percent chance at the top pick and a 48.1 percent chance at a top-4 pick.
And that’s a good thing! True, moving into the top-3 is still coveted as it gives you the best chance at the top pick. But the new odds have made that less of a bonus – last season the jump from No. 4 to No. 3 was a 3.7 percent jump (11.9 to 15.6 percent).
The Bulls don’t need to scoreboard watch in the final two months. They can roll out their best players and watch them grow. Markkanen is playing his best basketball and LaVine has picked up the slack for a struggling Kris Dunn.
Sean Kilpatrick and Noah Vonleh don’t need to hoist up shots knowing they’re not part of the future. The Bulls can see what they have in players like Wayne Selden, Chandler Hutchison and Shaq Harrison as potential options for next season.
The Bulls have a good problem at hand. It’s difficult to see them moving up or down in the Lottery standings, and they’re doing so in a year where it doesn’t matter as much. Even if they got red hot and somehow passed the Hawks, their odds would move from 12.5 percent to 10.5 percent. Nothing massive, and if they were to pass Atlanta it probably means LaVine, Dunn and Markkanen are doing something special.
These final games matter for the rebuild. The Bulls entered this current season with little knowledge of how their core (LaVine, Markkanen, Dunn) worked together. It’d be ideal to have Wendell Carter Jr. in the fold, but even without him they can still improve as a whole.
Throw in Otto Porter Jr. to the mix and the Bulls can get 24 games with little expectation of needing to win (or lose). It’s cliché, but developing a winning culture – or something resembling it – could help entering next season. The Bulls have said all year that they need to learn how to win, and they could get their chance in the final 2 months without it affecting any Lottery balls.