Can the Bulls Still Crash the Playoff Picture?

While the start of the season has clearly not gone as the Bulls had hoped, there's still a chance to turn the tide and make a push for a playoff spot, starting with these next 3 games which are all against teams with losing records.

Eight perhaps is not so great; But from where the Bulls have been it's not something to hate. - Sam Smith, December 2019

It's difficult to attribute art and beauty to a contest for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. It was an optimistic goal for the Bulls to start the 2019-20 season. With a quarter of the season now complete—despite the disappointments—the Bulls probably are in a reasonable five-team competition for the final playoff spot in the conference with the next quarter starting in Sacramento Monday.

It likely portends a playoff sweep for the survivor. But it, nevertheless, would represent progress and a long form view of success for those teams. Fates can change with so much of the season still to play, like with the 2004-05 Bulls who started 0-9 and still were 5-15 at this point. They would win 47 games.

The top six teams in the Eastern Conference already seem to have separated themselves. And the seventh isn't far behind them.

The Bucks, Raptors and 76ers look like certain top four candidates. The Celtics and Heat appear like they can slip in and perhaps the Pacers if Victor Oladipo comes back and adjusts with the team. The Nets are hanging around seventh even without Kyrie Irving, who'll return soon. Injuries could detour someone, though most of those teams already have endured and survived injuries. The Cavaliers, Hawks and Knicks seem destined for lottery positioning.

The middle group for that last spot probably includes the Bulls, Magic, Hornets, Wizards and Pistons. Detroit and Orlando made the playoffs last season, so it would be a setback for either to fall short. The Bulls are coming off 22 wins, the Hornets came up short last season after a late run and the Wizards appear to mostly be going through a reset until John Wall returns. The playoffs would be substantial progress for those three.

So where do they stand?

There are a lot of new numbers in sports these days. Many are revealing and useful. But there are two historic trends in the NBA that indicate eventual placement. They are point differential (the number of points scored vs surrendered) and road wins minus home losses. They've been predictive as much as anything of final standings. Though it's not ideal this time of year because the schedules still are not balanced.

The best teams usually have a point differential of plus-5 to plus-10. Milwaukee above plus-10 now indicates another 60-win season. A differential of zero usually suggests a .500 team. Similarly, a .500 team usually would have about as many road wins as home losses.

The Nets currently are the only team among the top seven with a minus total for the point differential. They are even with home losses versus road wins. The Nets are .500 for the season. So they could be involved in a contest that becomes a competition for the seventh and eighth place spots in the Eastern Conference. The Nets get the benefit with Irving due back soon. Then the contest for the last spot comes down to the eight teams starting with Orlando, which currently holds the last playoff position.

Point Differential:

  1. Brooklyn Nets: -1.5
  2. Orlando Magic: -1.2
  3. Charlotte Hornets: -8.5
  4. Washington Wizards: -2.6
  5. Detroit Pistons: -0.5
  6. Chicago Bulls: -4.2
  7. Cleveland Cavaliers: -7.4
  8. Atlanta Hawks: -11.3
  9. New York Knicks: -7.7

Road Wins/Home Loss:

  1. Brooklyn Nets: 0
  2. Orlando Magic: -3
  3. Charlotte Hornets: -1
  4. Washington Wizards: -1
  5. Detroit Pistons: -3
  6. Chicago Bulls: -4
  7. Cleveland Cavaliers: -5
  8. Atlanta Hawks: -5
  9. New York Knicks: -7

There's no formula for combining the two indices. But clearly the Nets appear the strongest for the No. 7 position, especially with the presence of Irving. Then using rough and somewhat unscientific math to combine the two, the Pistons and Wizards would seem to have the strongest case at this time for the last playoff spot followed by the Magic and Bulls with the Cavaliers, Hawks and Knicks far behind.

And here we go again for the Bulls with the next three games against teams with losing records. So the Bulls do have an opportunity to finally produce a winning streak, however limited. Of course, it hasn't been a great season in games against losing teams. The Bulls began an unsteady 1-3 against teams with losing records. Then the Bulls won five straight games against those teams. But now with the losses to Portland twice and Golden State, the Bulls are working on a streak of three straight losses to losing teams, though the Trailblazers were a conference finalist last season.

Despite losing in Portland Friday, the Bulls were competitive and down to the last seconds with a chance to win in an arena where they'd been mostly losing for the last decade. With Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison still out injured, Kris Dunn got his first start of the season in Portland. Tomas Satoransky played small forward and the Bulls had a good start. Though Satoransky is just an average defender, he's tall enough to play the position and gives the Bulls an additional playmaker at the wing position. It makes sense to continue to start Dunn until Porter returns.

Another question becomes the close of the game.

An issue the Bulls have had is so many of their players are reluctant shooters, seemingly because of the three-or-layup mandate. So everyone begins to look to Zach LaVine at the end of games. Zach doesn't seem hesitant. In that case, it makes sense to add Coby White to the finishing group because of his aggressive offensive nature. Against Portland, that might have resulted in taking out Dunn, who made a crucial defensive steal at the end of the game to give the Bulls a chance. Satoransky finished in Portland. He was the only Bulls player other than LaVine to make a field goal in the last three minutes.

The Bulls need the energy early, which suggests Dunn should return to his starting position. And to close the Bulls probably need White's threat.

But remember, the best coaching decisions are the ones that work. Those that don't are poor decisions.

While one of the true mysteries of the season has been the philosophy change of coach Jim Boylen. When Boylen replaced Fred Hoiberg just about a year ago, he endorsed a slower pace, a defensive grind-it-out game with an emphasis on scoring in the lane. Boylen was said to be an advocate for that even during Hoiberg's tenure. This season, the team's emphasis has been on the popular trend of attempting as many three-point shots as possible. The Bulls pace was among the slowest in the league after Boylen took over last season. It's been in the top third most of this season, only recently falling just outside. Not that the updated philosophy is incorrect given its frequent application around the NBA. Just surprising given the history.

So it's reasonable to believe with the core of the roster returning from last season, it's been an ongoing adjustment to the style of play and demands that changed so dramatically with the same coach.

Which is also why it's not unreasonable to believe the Bulls have a run in them. Perhaps not to threaten the East's elite. But that never was the belief. The hope was for progress and an opportunity in late March and April to be playing meaningful games that could lead to a playoff spot. That's still feasible, if not always aesthetically pleasing thus far.