The Chicago Bulls have been a walking punchline for most of the 2015-16 season. They’ve dealt with several injuries to key players — including Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, and Pau Gasol — but that alone isn’t to blame for the team that many considered to be the second-best in the Eastern Conference prior to the season — now one of the most disappointing teams in the league.
At 36-33, the Bulls are currently fighting for their playoff lives. In a situation where there are four teams for the final two spots in the East, the Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons, and Washington Wizards are separated by just two games. To break it down even further, the Bulls currently hold the last playoff spot in a virtual tie with the 37-34 Pistons, who still have one final matchup remaining with Chicago.
But is making the playoffs in the best interest for the Bulls? It’s a somewhat crazy notion, and nobody is suggesting tanking, but what is the best-case scenario here? With the salary cap exploding in the offseason and the Bulls’ front office fairly openly recognizing that they need to make changes to suit the coaching style of Fred Hoiberg, there’s a case to be made for both sides. Would the Bulls be closer to winning a championship later by missing the playoffs in 2015-16?
The case for making the playoffs is easy. The goal of every team is to win as many games as possible, and if the Bulls win their games they will make the playoffs. Right now, the first-round matchup for Chicago would be against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs are 50-20 and leading the East as what many consider to be the only championship contender in the entire conference.
Even prior to the season, when many thought the Bulls were the head of the class among teams behind Cleveland in the East, a series against the Cavs would’ve been considered a five- or six-game victory for James and company. This season? The Bulls would be lucky to snag a game. Maybe Rose turns back the clock and the Bulls make it an interesting series, but the days of Tom Thibodeau’s intense defense are long gone. A playoff series with Cleveland would do little for Chicago other than create a couple extra home games’ worth of revenue.
As far as moving forward, the Bulls would be locked into the 16th pick in the draft if they make the playoffs. According to SI.com’s top-20 draft prospects, that would lock the Bulls into an area of the draft that generally doesn’t find high-impact players (Butler, who was the 30th pick in 2011, notwithstanding). At No. 16, the Bulls could take a player such as Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis, Gonzaga center Domantas Sabonis, or UNLV center Stephen Zimmerman.
If the Bulls miss the playoffs, for example, they would lose those few playoff games. Their fans would be disappointed, as would team personnel. Nobody likes missing the playoffs even if there isn’t a reasonable shot of advancing. That would mean the Pistons or the Wizards passed the Bulls in the standings, leaving the front office with the pressure of having to adjust the roster to be certain that this level of failure doesn’t happen again.
It leaves the finger of blame pointed directly at general manager Gar Forman, who did nothing but fire the popular coach Thibodeau and replace him with Hoiberg, as if that would solve all the problems the Bulls had last season when they won 50 games and lost to the Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. Making the playoffs and sneaking out a victory or two against Cleveland justifies building around this broken core all the more for Forman, who seems to be blinded by his own arrogance at times.
The last time the Bulls missed the playoffs was 2007-08, and they committed to a complete overhaul of their roster. They finished that season with a 1.5% chance of winning the NBA Draft Lottery, and of course they did, drafting Rose and turning around the fortunes of the franchise, however briefly. That’s not to say that missing the playoffs is better because of the slim chance of landing the first pick (along with it 19-year-old LSU stud Ben Simmons). But finishing with, say, the 12th pick in the draft would put the Bulls in a position to grab a guy like Michigan State’s Deyonta Davis or Denzel Valentine.
The Bulls could also trade their pick, in combination with assets such as Nikola Mirotic or Taj Gibson, for an impact player that a rebuilding team no longer wishes to pay. No matter how the Bulls decide to go about the business of rebuilding the Bulls, there’s no doubt that even though making the playoffs provides better memories and more positivity about the 2015-16 season, missing the playoffs could set them up better for building the next Bulls championship contender.
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