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David Zalubowski / Associated Press
The Chicago Bulls have appeared to be championship contenders at various points during the 2021-22 NBA season.
The problem is that those points are moving further into the rearview mirror.
The Bulls are still well above .500 and perched fifth in the Eastern Conference standings, but they haven’t maintained those standards the past few months. They are just 15-18 since Jan. 8 and 2-7 over their past nine games.
Will getting back to full strength cure what’s ailing this club? Alex Caruso recently returned from a lengthy layoff, and Chicago is still awaiting the comebacks of Lonzo Ball and Patrick Williams.
Or are these struggles signs of bigger issues with this squad? Did this team play above its head to start the season, and might these past few months be more indicative of its actual ability?
We will work toward answering those questions by identifying the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Bulls’ playoff run before landing on its most likely outcome.
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Noah Graham / Getty Images
Through squinted eyes, Chicago resembles a championship contender on its good days.
The offense can be overwhelming. DeMar DeRozan has been breathing fire all season. Zach LaVine can go supernova on any night. Nikola Vucevic, the No. 3 option, can pile up points from the paint to the perimeter. When Ball, Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu help connect the dots as ball-moving glue guys, the Bulls can score at a rate few can match.
The defensive end is the bigger question mark, but even then they aren’t hopeless down there. Trot out some combination of Ball, Caruso, Dosunmu, Williams and Javonte Green, and the Bulls can cause a lot of chaos on the perimeter.
Yet it’s hard to set this squad’s ceiling beyond the Eastern Conference Finals, and getting even that far would require fixing some of the issues that have plagued it of late. Look beyond the simple winning percentage, and it’s hard to buy this team as a true elite when it has a losing record against .500 or better opponents (15-20) and has yet to beat a top-three seed in either conference.
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Mitchell Leff / Getty Images
Look at how bunched up the Eastern Conference is at the top. If the Bulls don’t fix things fast, there’s a non-zero chance they get bumped all the way to the Play-In Tournament (they are only two games up on the seventh-seeded Toronto Raptors).
It’s hard to see that happening, though, even if it’s technically possible.
Two teams would have to jump the Bulls, and that’s a tough scenario to see. Even if the red-hot Toronto Raptors chase down Chicago, the Cleveland Cavaliers probably aren’t closing that gap. They have their own injury issues (namely, the loss of All-Star center Jarrett Allen), and they are a sub-.500 team since the end of January.
If you’re talking worst-case scenario for the Chicago, though, falling into the No. 7 seed and landing in the Play-In Tournament is it.
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Maddie Malhotra / Getty Images
Less than a month of the regular season remains, but seed lines will still change hands several times before the curtain drops.
Unless Chicago reverses its fortunes overnight and suddenly rockets up the standings, though, the playoff bracket probably won’t take shape in a way that gets the Bulls beyond the opening round.
If the campaign closed today, they would draw a Boston Celtics team that has been the league’s most efficient for the past two months-plus. If the Bulls slip to No. 6, they might have to tussle with the Miami Heat, Milwaukee Bucks or Philadelphia 76ers. They are 0-9 with four double-digit losses against that trio.
Maybe a healthy Chicago defense keeps things close enough for DeRozan to work his late-game magic. Maybe the Bulls’ Big Three shreds enough nets to mask their defensive limitations. Maybe injuries or uncharacteristic inconsistency short-circuits an opponent.
There are multiple scenarios in which the Bulls pass their first-round test, but there are even more ways in which they don’t.