Bulls stood pat as (mostly) expected during the trading frenzy that has occurred over the last 72 hours. This by itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as we hold out hope Lonzo Ball can find his way back on to the court sometime in the second half of the season. However, things get a little sticky when looking at the teams surrounding the Bulls in the standings.
We can mostly ignore the Bucks, Celtics, and 76ers who each made small moves to try to sure up their depth. The Cavs and Heat basically stood pat as well. All five are way out of the Bulls league anyways (we will come back to the Nets though).
The two teams directly above the Bulls in the standings are the Hawks and the Knicks.
The Hawks added Saddiq Bey (I guy I loved in the PatWil draft) without giving up any rotation players (it did cost them 5 second round picks though). I love Bey and am interested to see where he fits in given they have a pretty solid front-court and were unable to move off of the John Collins contract. So Bey either takes Deandre Hunter’s spot as the (big) small forward in the starting line-up or comes off the bench as the sixth man, alongside Bogdanovic. Worth noting Bey and Hunter are both averaging about 15/4/1 on pretty similar shooting splits and shots per game. I guess what I’m saying is, the Hawks got a little better by adding some depth with a great role player who will probably find easier shots in Atlanta with Young and Murray in the backcourt.
Looking at the Knicks, they gave up Cam Reddish (who has put up DNP-CD’s since the new year plus two others who aren’t in the rotation) for Josh Hart. Hart will probably take over as the starting 2 guard in place of Grimes to give them a better defender next to Brunson and Barrett. Again, this gives the Knicks a skilled player who can start for them and help them on D as they wait for Mitchell Robinson’s return in ~3 weeks, allowing them to call on Grimes, Quickley, Fournier, Toppin, and Sims (and 🌹) off the bench.
Below the Bulls in the standings are the Raptors, Wizards, and Pacers. Wizards gave up Rui, and while he isn’t a showstopper, he was probably their best player off the bench at 13ppg in 24mpg. That lack of depth will make it tough for them to compete with the Bulls, Pacers, and Raptors for one of those last two play-in spots.
For the Raptors, most people looked at them as sellers, with Siakam, Anunoby, and VanVleet all hearing there names in possible trade rumors. Instead, they added a center in Jakob Poeltl, returning him to where he started his career. This gives the Raptors a real center who can play 20+ minutes, which is something they’ve lacked, being limited to Precious Achiuwa at 6’8″ and Chris Boucher at 6’9″. All they had to do was give up Khem Birch–and while Birch has his fans, he wasn’t able to find his way into the rotation. I don’t know if this makes the Raptors better than the Bulls, but it makes the margin of error that much slimmer, especially without a line of sight into Ball’s timetable.
Lastly, the Pacers added George Hill. I love this move for the Pacers. He is exactly the kind of guy you want to mentor your young guards in Haliburton, Duarte, and Mathurin. Even without playing, his leadership should help them become more consistent and consummate pros in the league and potentially help stave off some of those longer losing streaks that resulted in them falling behind the Bulls, Raptors, and Wizards in the first place. While it doesn’t move the needle that much, they’ll likely overtake the Wizards in the 11th seed and be a pest for the Bulls and Raptors who are trying to hold on to the play-in seeds.
Okay. So lets talk about the Nets. They are the obvious candidate to come crashing down as they’ve moved off their superstar duo in Irving and Durant. I don’t see it though. With 28 games left, they should still finish in the top 8 without much trouble. Miami will likely jump them, but that’s about it. This is a Nets team that will surprise people, similar to what they did under Kenny Atkinson before the Durant/Irving circus came to town. Mikal Bridges, Cam Johnson, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Dorian Finney-Smith join a core of Joe Harris, Seth Curry, Royce O’Neale, Nic Claxton (who I love), the young gunner, Cam Thomas, the vet, Patty Mills, and… whatever Ben Simmons can bring… That’s a lot of shooting and defense coming from a lot of potential rotations. While they may be lacking a bit in the creation department, Dinwiddie/Mills/Simmons should be able to figure something out with all the looks they can throw out there with those 11 guys. They are not going to just roll over and start tanking with their stars gone. Plus they brought in five first round picks, a pick swap, and two second rounders.
So in the end, where does that leave the Bulls. Probably right around where we started… The way the Bulls operate relies heavily on Lonzo Ball who is able to make up for the defensive deficiencies in the big three and can still make an impact on the offensive end as a PG who doesn’t need the ball in his hands next to DeMar and LaVine. With Ball, they have a shot to get out of the play-in and make the real playoffs. Without him, it will be a struggle all season to even hold on to their top ten spot. Even if they do, they’d likely lose the first play-in game.