The Chicago Bulls have bought in on this season, hoping to make the playoffs. What does it mean for their future?
The Chicago Bulls were surprisingly busy this trade deadline. Entering the day with a 19-24 record, five games below .500, the Bulls bought into this season, trading for Nikola Vucevic and Daniel Theis, among others.
Orlando sent their All-Star center in Vucevic alongside Al-Faruq Aminu in exchange for Otto Porter, Wendell Carter Jr., and two first-round picks (one in 2021 and one in 2023 according to Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN).
We’ve all seen these kinds of trades before, ones where a team moves on from their best players, embracing their rebuild while another adds to their core to push themselves over the edge. “The edge” can be defined as a lot of things, but spending these kinds of assets usually means “the edge” is a deep playoff run or specific opponent.
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What’s interesting about this case is that as of the trade, the Bulls weren’t in the playoff picture and were actually out of the play-in picture, the NBA’s new consolation prize for finishing in the 9th or 10th seeds.
Since the trade, the Bulls have gone 1-4 (the win coming against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday) and as of writing this, they’re sitting 10th in the East which would see them have to win two play-in games to make the playoffs.
It’s a tricky spot to be in, but the worst-case scenario is much scarier than the best-case scenario could be.
The best-case scenario for the Chicago Bulls
The playoffs are very exciting (and lucrative) and we’re all hoping the play-in tournament will be exciting too. The Bulls will probably be in at least one of them, exciting for Bulls fans.
If they make the playoffs, even the biggest Bulls fans won’t pick them against the Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks, or Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game series; their likely first-round opponents. Best case, they win one or two games, sell some (socially distanced) tickets and Bulls fans get to cheer for some real basketball for the first time in years.
The playoff experience for the young players is nearly invaluable, Coby White, Patrick Williams, and Lauri Markkanen will all get postseason play under their belts at a young age.
What’s even more exciting is that the hype train usually departs in the playoffs and if one or more of those three play well, they’ll be talked about for the months following. While it might be superficial, it’s not bad for a fanbase (see White, Derrick for San Antonio after the Denver series).
The following season, the Bulls build on their playoff berth, re-signing key veterans, bringing back Lauri on a team-friendly deal (this is arguably part of the worst-case scenario, but oh well), and even entice a big(ish)-name free agent to come to the Windy City.
From here, the one-two punch of Zach LaVine and Vucevic, with a full training camp under their belt, start the 2021-22 NBA season off strong and keep it rolling into a guaranteed playoff spot, sixth or higher.
With little first-round picks at their disposal, the Bulls keep retooling around this core via free agency, and maybe one of their young players break-out into something greater than their projection right now.
It’s hard to bet on someone having a Most Improved Player-level of season, but with a number of younger players, it’s not impossible.
How far does that scenario go? Are they better than the best in the East?
Will the tandem of LaVine and Vuc get past Kevin Durant and James Harden? Will it get past Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons? Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton?
It’s hard to see and while I’m not a betting man, I would advise people not to bet on them being better than those other duos.
And with that, let’s move on.
The worst-case scenario for the Chicago Bulls
As of writing this article, the Bulls are eight games below .500 but let’s be nice and say they make the play in this season. Let’s say they even get into the playoffs before losing in the first round to one of the league’s elite.
They then enter the 2021 offseason without their first-round pick, with a free agent in Markkanen and the decision of whether to guarantee Thad Young’s $14.2 million for next season.
If Markkanen doesn’t like what the Bulls offer (which they shouldn’t offer too much since he hasn’t been incredible), he can just take his qualifying offer of around $9 million and become an unrestricted free agent the following offseason, potential leaving Chicago for nothing.
Vuc will officially be on the wrong side of 30, entering his age-31 season in 2021-22 while a 27-year-old Zach LaVine will hopefully be playing at the same, if not better, level that he is this year. That’s a scary one-two punch on offence anywhere, a good starting base.
How will the Bulls’ young players look next season? Does Coby White make a jump in his age-21 season? Pat Williams in his sophomore?
If not, too bad. This is the entire young core for Chicago since they won’t be drafting another rookie in the mid-first-round this draft.
Not that the middle of the first-round is a sure-fire elite player, but there’s at least a small chance you hit on a Donovan Mitchell-level of player, someone who plays above their draft slot and boosts the team up.
Funnily enough, with Vuc and LaVine on the court, the team will probably still be incendiary on offense, the two are great at what they do and will only get better as they play more and more together. Their two-man game will likely progress, gain some interesting wrinkles and will make Zach Lowe’s ten things articles a few times.
But similar to the best-case scenario, is that it?
In either universe, the Bulls will lock in a playoff spot at least next season, sell some tickets, and hope their young players grow into something elite. Is that a roadmap to success?
On a recent episode of The Deep Two NBA Podcast, I debated that this isn’t the roadmap to a championship. In fact, trading for Vucevic might have also seen the Orlando Magic send ahead the treadmill he can often be found running on. The treadmill of mediocrity.