The Chicago Bulls are more or less locked into the playoffs. The only question now is what their playoff matchups will look like. It wasn't so long ago that things looked like they might fall into an ideal scenario, but a big Cleveland run later and that scenario is long gone.
Teams I'd prefer Chicago avoid
There are three teams that Bulls fans would probably like to avoid:
1: Cleveland - I'm sure we all fear any team LeBron James is on for good reason, but the Cavs have always been my favorite to come out of the East and have made enough moves to really look like a strong favorite right now.
2: Atlanta - I'm not a huge believer in the Hawks despite their record. That said, they're obviously awfully good and have talent at every position on the floor.
3: Washington - Their athletic bigs tend to beat up on our bigs, and they have enough perimeter talent to give the Bulls fits.
In an ideal bracket, the Bulls would face someone other than Washington in the first round, have Cleveland pair up with Atlanta in the second round, and then face whomever is left in the finals.
Right now that is actually the case. The ideal bracket. The problem is, there's just about a zero percent chance it stays that way. Let's look at the standings:
1: Atlanta (47-12) - The Hawks more or less have the one seed locked up already. With 23 games left in their season they have a 10 game lead in the loss column. If they played .500 the rest of the way, no one is catching them.
2: Toronto (37-22) - Toronto has a tenuous half game lead on the two spot, but I don't think anyone expects them to hang on to it as they've struggled recently.
3: Bulls (37-23) - The Bulls have a half game lead on Cleveland for the three spot, but their arrow is pointed down and despite Cleveland dropping a couple recently (including one to the Bulls), you have to believe their arrow is pointing up.
4: Cavaliers (37-24) - The Cavs are coming off a tough OT loss to the Rockets, but I still think they're likely to have the best close of the 2-5 teams and given the gap between them will easily take the #2 spot.
5: Washington (34-26) - The Wizards have kind of fallen off a cliff lately, though they were missing Bradley Beal for much of the fall they were awful before he was hurt as well. Beal is back now, and if he can get back to 100% then Washington probably hangs on to 5th.
6: Milwaukee (32-27) - The Bucks would have had a great shot to move up had they not traded away Brandon Knight. However, they're 2-4 since the trade, and I can't see them closing the season strong. Ignore the long term ramifications of the deal, in the short term MCW is both a worse player and a worse fit for the team.
7: Miami (25-33) - Without Bosh they're no threat to do anything, and sure as hell aren't going to pass anyone.
8: Indiana (25-34) - Paul George looks like he'll return for the playoffs which might make the Pacers a sneaky tough matchup if he is 100% and gets enough time before then to gel a bit. It seems a bit of a stretch, but I'd be more scared of the Pacers than the Bucks or Heat if George is back on the floor and has a bit of time.
9: Charlotte/Brooklyn/Boston/Detroit - They're all still in the hunt for the eighth spot, but you wouldn't be worried about any of them in the playoffs, so they're all irrelevant.
So what's the problem? The way things are presently unfolding, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Cleveland moves up in the standings. If Cleveland finishes two or three then the Bulls are forced to go through Cleveland and Atlanta to get to the ECF.
It also seems likely to me that Chicago will drop to four at this point given their injuries. I don't see Milwaukee moving up after the trade which means the Bulls matchup goes as follows:
Round 1: Washington
Round 2: Atlanta
Round 3: Cleveland
(assuming there are no upsets, but in this case, I'd bet that if the Bulls made it to the ECF that Cleveland would be there waiting for them).
I'd say the one advantage of this matchup is that I'd probably rather play Atlanta in round two than Cleveland in round two as I believe Chicago has a better shot at beating Atlanta and an extra two weeks might make them slightly healthier for a Cleveland matchup.
That said, no matter how you slice it, the Bulls seem overwhelmingly likely to have to go through Atlanta/Cleveland and probably both on the road.
Even if they hang on to a top three spot and don't fall down in the standings, their reward will be a second round matchup with Cleveland.
At this point, my best hope is that Washington falls past the Bucks and if the Bulls all to fourth they get to play Milwaukee in round 1. I think that gives the best possible match up left for Chicago of round 1 Milwaukee, round 2 Atlanta, round 3 Cleveland.
That's still a tough bracket to come out of even if everyone is healthy.
Let's say a little prayer for Jimmy Butler
The Bulls simply cannot afford to lose Butler for any length of time. Butler left the game after running hard into a DeAndre Jordan screen. He's getting an MRI on his elbow today to see what the deal is. The initial report is a hyperextended elbow.
This could mean anything from a week to the rest of the season depending what comes up on the MRI. Realistically? I thought the Bulls playoff hopes were dashed the moment Rose needed knee surgery again.
There's no way Derrick comes back and plays well enough after his knee surgery (regardless of how minor). His history is that he's a guy who takes forever to heal and play well after being out. Even if he makes it back (as expected, but don't be so sure with Derrick) then it's unlikely he plays at a high level.
However, Jimmy Butler missing time would be the death knoll for the Bulls on the season. My guess [which is based on nothing other than a guess] is that Butler doesn't miss more than two weeks which will give Bulls fans the chance to keep hope alive.
Will we see McDermott?
Nikola Mirotic burst onto the scene when injuries forced Tom Thibodeau's hand and gave Nikola an opportunity. With Butler likely out for a few games will Doug McDermott find any time?
Don't hold your breath.
The Bulls have little to lose at this point. They're likely to lose a bunch of games while both Rose and Butler are out anyway. A reasonable person would think if I have one card left to play that I might as well play it now.
However, I think Thibs just folds before playing that last card. Instead, he'll ride out Hinrich and Dunleavy rather than even giving McDermott a shot. In fairness, Thibs has more information than we do. Maybe Doug is a train wreck in practice.
I don't see how he could be any worse than Hinrich at this point though, and Kirk's already going to have to soak up a ton of PG minutes anyway.
For the love of God just give Doug a shot to play. Especially since he can provide some perimeter offense and the Bulls have none right now.
Aaron Brooks not exactly running with the starter gig
I always liked Brooks the least of the three microguards we've had recently, and now that he's starting it looks like there's a pretty big tangible difference between him and Augustin/Robinson. Nate/D.J. got it against starters.
Aaron has really struggled with that so far. He's looked completely out of sorts. He almost made me want them to point Kirk in at the point. Almost.
We'll have to hope that Brooks has simply been on a cold spell and busts out of it soon otherwise it's going to be a really tough month with Rose out.
Anyone think the Bulls don't need Rose?
One of the weird questions I've gotten a lot recently is whether I think the Bulls are better without Derrick Rose. No. Of course not.
Look, I've been critical of Rose's play this season. It hasn't been very good relative to his standards. However, the Bulls need Derrick. Even Derrick playing not nearly as good as Derrick can play.
I don't think Rose is a superstar, but he's absolutely critical to the Bulls having any hope of success.
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