With the Washington Wizards defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night, the Chicago Bulls for officially eliminated from play-in tournament contention. With two more regular season games left in the schedule, questions remain for what this team will look like in the future as they head into the offseason.
And then there were none.
Technically, there are two, the Bulls playing Saturday afternoon against the Brooklyn Nets and Sunday night against the Milwaukee Bucks to close their 2020-21 NBA season.
But it effectively ended, disappointingly so if inevitable during the last several days, with the Washington Wizards Friday victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. That win enabled the Wizards to slip into the final play-in tournament spot in 10th place in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls at 30-40 now cannot catch the Wizards, Pacers and Hornets, all with 33 wins.
"We had a really, really slim chance and we took that upon ourselves to try to make it happen," Zach LaVine said earlier this week while the Bulls were winning four of their last five games upon LaVine's return from a Covid illness.
But his 11 games missed proved fatal to the team's hopes as the Bulls went 4-7, losing four straight by double digits just before LaVine's return. LaVine then averaged 26.6 per game and 45 percent on threes in those five games. But the Bulls needed to win them all to have a chance.
Which made the team's elimination all-the-more painful since the Bulls were undefeated the last two months against the four teams—Boston, Charlotte, Indiana and Washington—who will play off next week for the seventh and eighth playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls were 5-0 combined against Boston, Charlotte, Washington and Indiana since the All Star break and 9-3 for the season. The Bulls owned the tiebreakers over all the play-in teams because of the head-to-head success.
It's the fourth consecutive season the Bulls will miss the playoffs with only about a one-in-four chance this time of being in the first round of the draft. The Orlando Magic gets the Bulls selection from the Nikola Vucevic trade unless it is top four. While sitting on the sidelines again for the playoffs is disappointing for the team, especially with the acquisition of All-Star Vucevic in March, it's particularly tough on LaVine. The seventh year guard became an All-Star and had dedicated this season to being in the playoffs for the first time, playing finally, as he often said, in meaningful games. It will have to wait 'til next season once again.
"We're the ones that put ourselves in this predicament," LaVine said. "We understand that."
Though LaVine with it all remained a sportsman, saying he wasn't so much rooting against anyone. Just for his team.
Zach LaVine walks off the court following Chicago's 114-102 win over Toronto on Thursday night.
"I've been watching (Washington), especially with what Russ (Westbrook) is doing," LaVine said. "Congratulations to him on everything he has accomplished (with a record number of triple doubles). The history he has made this year and throughout his career is incredible. You're watching because you're in competition with them. You're never counting on people to lose. I'm not that type of guy just hoping they lose. You're always watching to see how much they've progressed throughout the year."
Though it's an unsatisfying result for the Bulls, they do appear to have progressed.
They are 11-16 with Vucevic, but appear to have a strong scoring core with Vucevic averaging 22 and 11.6 since the trade, LaVine 25.5 and Coby White 15.4. Rookie Patrick Williams averaging nine points for the season has been the iron man, starting a team most 69 games. Those four appear to be the foundation for the team going forward.
Questions remain about Lauri Markkanen, who is a restricted free agent, Thad Young and Tomas Satoransky without full guarantees for next season and free agents Daniel Theis, Denzel Valentine, Cristiano Felicio, Javonte Green, Ryan Arcidiacono with a team option, and Garrett Temple.
"I think AK and Marc (executives Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley) have done a great job, have done a great job showing that they keep things close to the vest, that they understand the business, and deal with a level of privacy that's refreshing in today's NBA," Temple said earlier this week. "Not only do all that, but they have an eye for talent. Getting Pat (Williams) where they got Pat and being able to trade and bring an All-Star in Vooch here and also being able to get Theis as well, who has shown what he can do in the league, I think people that understand and are free agents and things of that nature are probably looking at the Bulls front office as a place, a group of people that know what they're doing for sure.
Garrett Temple will enter the 2021 offseason as a free agent.
"I love what we're doing here," said Temple. "I love the coaching staff. I'm enjoying the front office. I'm really enjoying being around the guys. It's Covid protocol, so we haven't gone out at all or anything. But just enjoying the guys. For example in Detroit, we were hanging out together in the lobby area, talking and playing cards. Not every team is like that. I enjoy being here. I would love to see what we could do to progress this type of team. We have the talent. We're young. We could make some great steps in the next year or two."
In a bizarre season without fans until just the last few games, the Bulls had a surprisingly good road record at 16-19, two games better than their home record with one road game and one home game remaining. The team's pace of play, which was among the leaders early in the season, slowed with the acquisition of Vucevic and strength along the front line. That got one time prized prospect Markkanen regelated to relief duty. The Bulls are in the middle of the league in pace, ranking 17th in offense and 12th in defense. With Vucevic and LaVine for a full season, they expect to substantially improve offensively. That's vital to compete in the NBA now.
The Bulls moved up to 11th in rebounding and fifth in assists and top 10 in shooting. But they were toward the bottom of the league in turnovers, blocks and steals and last in free throws attempted. The draft of Williams and trade for Vucevic were the leading indicators for changes to come this summer.
Billy Donovan led the Bulls to 30 wins for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
"I enjoy being around these guys every day," said coach Billy Donovan following Thursday's win over Toronto. "I feel like they try to do everything you ask them to do. I think it's a pretty connected group as a team. I think there is good relationships and they get along really well. That part of it has been great. I think Coby has grown a lot during the course of the year. He's obviously a young player who has ups and downs. But I really have loved the way he has matured and grown. I think Zach is still searching and striving to continue to get better and improve. Obviously, he was an All-Star this year. But I think winning is important to him and I think he's figuring out the mental side of what goes into that. I think Lauri was playing very, very well before he hurt his shoulder. I think when he came back there were a few games after the All-Star break and then the trade deadline happened and our team really changed. We added a lot of frontcourt players and he has been a total team guy. I love the way Thad has played all year long with his leadership and the way he has conducted himself as a professional. He's been awesome. So has Garrett. Sato has been great as far as starting or coming off the bench. It's been a good group. Obviously, every team is not perfect. Every team has things they have to get better at and certainly this group, there's a lot we need to get better at. But overall, I've seen these guys stick together and work together and continue to try to get better as a group."
To be continued.