When the season began, the odds that the Chicago Bulls would trade one of their top players seemed about as long as a full-court shot.
Then they lost Derrick Rose to another knee injury. Now All-Star Luol Deng is gone, dealt to Cleveland early Tuesday, and it sure looks like the Bulls are on their way to an NBA lottery ticket.
One thing, though.
There is no guarantee they will get there given the sorry state of the Eastern Conference. With only three teams holding winning records entering Tuesday’s games, perennial losers and underachievers still have hopes of making a playoff run even though the notion of tanking is at full throttle in the NBA.
Those that would just as soon fall into the lottery in a year when the draft could be loaded might have a tough time. Indiana (27-6) and Miami (26-8) are clearly the cream of the conference. After that, it’s wide open.
The only other teams with non-losing records after Monday’s games: Atlanta (18-17) and Toronto (16-16).
“It’s unusual that there are so many teams under .500,” Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said. “It’s also unusual that there have been a lot of significant injuries. Brooklyn went out and Brook Lopez goes out and breaks his (right foot). There’s been a lot of that going on. The East is still an open deal. With our guys being competitive, they’ll play hard.”
When Rose tore the meniscus in his right knee at Portland in November after sitting out last season recuperating from a torn ACL in his left knee, it just about dashed any hopes the Bulls had of surpassing LeBron James and the defending champion Heat in the East. And when Deng declined a contract extension offer in recent days, Paxson said it was time to make a move rather than risk losing him as a free agent after the season.
The Bulls made the trade even though they were sixth in the Eastern Conference and in the running for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
But in the big picture, what would that accomplish for Chicago? On the other hand, for teams such as Washington and Charlotte, a postseason appearance could be a huge boost. And for Cleveland, which is trying to avoid the lottery after picking first last year, the Deng trade could be fuel for a turnaround after an 11-23 start.
A team such as New York that was 11-22 despite a roster that looked impressive on paper with Carmelo Anthony leading the way could try to hang on in hopes of getting hot in the playoffs rather than dismantle the roster.
Maybe Atlanta becomes a buyer rather than a seller. The possibilities seem endless in part because the conference is struggling.
“It’s a phenomenon this year in the Eastern Conference,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “I don’t think it’s a negative. I think it’s just you have a different group of teams having different missions, trying to find their way, trying to find a rhythm — trying to find whatever it is — in the same season. It’s unusual.”
Paxson insisted the deal with Cleveland wasn’t a white flag trade, even if the Bulls made it with an eye toward the future.
The Bulls acquired draft pick picks along with scuffling center Andrew Bynum, who was waived before Tuesday’s deadline. That meant they would not be on the hook for the remaining $6 million on the two-year, $24 million contract Bynum signed with the Cavaliers in July.
The Paxson said the money the Bulls save in salaries and luxury tax will be “put back into this basketball team.” The Bulls could have the flexibility to be active in free agency and bring in Spanish star Nikola Mirotic, whose rights they acquired in a 2011 draft-day trade — particularly if they amnesty Carlos Boozer.
“That’s something you have to talk to (management) about that,” Boozer said when asked about his future.
Paxson said no decision has been made on Boozer. He bristled at the idea that the Bulls were giving up on the season by parting with Deng, a favorite of coach Tom Thibodeau.
“I’m going to do my job,” Thibodeau said. “These guys that I have are great guys and they’ve put a lot into this. And we’ve dealt with significant blows the last three years and they’ve responded to every challenge.”
Paxson sees playoff potential with a roster that includes Noah, Boozer, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler along with veterans Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy Jr. And with the room to make some moves before next season not to mention the return of Rose, he insists the Bulls’ future is far from dim.
With Chicago native Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins possibly headlining a strong draft class, there might be an opportunity to strike it rich. The Bulls did just that in 2008 when they grabbed Rose with the No. 1 pick after defying a 1.7 percent chance to win the draft lottery.
“I think you have to be careful about what you perceive will happen the rest of this year,” Paxson said. “You just don’t know. The reality is that we still have really good basketball players in that locker room down the hall and some very competitive guys. We also have a coach who prepares our team daily better than any coach in the NBA.”