Sam Smith: Could the NCAA tournament foreshadow the NBA playoffs?

Perhaps this Men's NCAA tournament is going to be a harbinger for the NBA season in this most unusual year for sports. And also why it's not too late to keep looking forward for a lot of teams, including the Bulls.

At 19-23 and hanging onto a tie for the 9/10 play-in spots with Indiana coming into Wednesday's game with Cleveland, the Bulls haven't suggested excellence.

But neither did teams like Oral Roberts, Oregon State, Oregon, Syracuse, Ohio and Abilene Christian in a first weekend of tournament games that produced the most upsets (wins against teams ranked at least five places ahead) in NCAA history. It's something that all the sports leagues both feared and predicted, in part, because of the usual combination of factors with the Covid virus. That we shouldn't expect the expected results.

It's coming true in college basketball. Could it be next for the NBA?

After all, who had the Jazz and Suns leading the Western Conference a day before the NBA trading deadline? The Raptors out of the top 10 in the East and falling, the Celtics below .500 and the Knicks a half game out of first round home court advantage?

The NBA weeds out most upsets because the eliminations are in multiple game series. But with Covid protocols following the short offseason and a spate of injuries, Billy Donovan's admonishment to players to always be ready also applies to teams.

The Atlanta Hawks fired their coach, barely have lost since and quickly went from 12th to fourth.

And though the Bulls have weeped over several devastating losses, even turning half of them around with one shot or stop or lucky bounce maybe has the Bulls fifth. They are two games behind three .500 teams for fifth. Which also is the aim this season to avoid the No. 6 through 10 play-in tournament.

So how has your Bulls season gone?

How about Portland and losing a five-point lead in eight seconds? Denver a six-point lead with 45 seconds left. Oklahoma City and a lost 22-point lead. Golden State with an unexpected three at the buzzer to lose. The Lakers and shooting an open shot for the win with four seconds left. The Clippers down one with 18 seconds left. Leading the Spurs by a dozen in the fourth quarter. You are what your record is. But you don't have to be going forward

"I look at the numbers, I look at who's in front of us, I look at our schedule," Thad Young said a few weeks ago. "I've seen months where we can kind of take care of business and really push some leeway and some gaps in between us and other teams. I see in April (against Eastern rivals for the last few playoff spots) where we can really cover some ground on some teams."

Which assumes Young will be there.

Thad Young rises up for a slam against the Washington Wizards.

Young has been the subject of mostly speculation in this trading season because he is a veteran having an excellent season, the kind of player who can be a final piece for a title contender. There are no indications the Bulls plan to trade Young—or anyone else—though questions will be asked until 2 p.m. Thursday.

"I haven't even really worried about it," Young said earlier this week. "The biggest thing for me is, as long as I'm here, I'm here to do a job and that's my focus, to do the job that I'm here to do, which is help these young guys and continue to play as hard as I can each and every night and help try to continue to win. I haven't really worried too much about the trade situation or haven't discussed it. Nor do I really even care to talk about it. If it happens, it happens. I understand it's a part of the business, and I understand how the business works. So whatever happens happens and I try to just control what I can control at all times."

Though trade deadline generally is more rumor than result, the cauldron of conjecture is being stirred vigorously.

Toronto's Kyle Lowry has often been mentioned, which also could suggest a reset for the Raptors. They're currently 11th barely ahead of the unnamed who Arturas Karnisovas believed could be some "delusional" hopefuls. That could leave the Bulls in by just not going out. Next stop sixth?

Other prominent names being wondered about in trade include Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier, Lonzo Ball, Andre Drummond, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan. John Collins, Al Horford, George Hill, DeMarcus Cousins and the Bulls Lauri Markkanen. Some likely will choose the post-trade buyout path because of big contracts that are difficult to trade.

Pelicans guard Lonzo Ball is one name that has floated around the the NBA rumor mill.

Though some suggest the Bulls make a move to, at least, shake things up, sometimes a move can prove more disruptive with new rotations and lineups. Already, Donovan has changed starters with mixed results. With almost no practices the rest of the regular season with so many games, it's especially difficult for a young team to make a major adjustment. Better and more experienced teams generally can add a player in trade for a specified role.

These NBA playoffs can be like no other. Everyone warned this might be the rule rather than the exception this season, and Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, among several others, discovered it in the NCAA tournament. Is the NBA playoffs headed to a similar outcome?

This is how close the Bulls are to fourth in the East. Including all the omissions and commissions of the season, if Jamal Murray, Damion Lee and Damian Lillard miss tough, contested threes in the last seconds the Bulls are sitting today with a first round home court playoff spot.

As Al Davis might have said, Just get in, baby.