What’s keeping the Bulls from playoffs? Here’s a reminder.

The NBA playoffs are down to the final four.

How close are the Bulls to joining this exclusive club? Well, keep in mind they've made the conference finals once in the last 26 seasons.

But if they started last season 14-5 instead of 5-14 — admittedly, a big if — they would have finished ahead of Indiana, which advanced two rounds mostly by staying healthier than the opposition. The two Western Conference finalists — Minnesota and Dallas — won 42 and 38 games, respectively, last season.

This doesn't mean the Bulls are on the verge of a breakthrough. It's a reminder of how they could easily be viewed as a team on the rise if not for those pesky front-office mistakes that have plagued the franchise for decades.

Let's recap an alternate universe state of the Bulls:

— What if Arturas Karnisovas had held the line at one first-round pick in the Nikola Vucevic trade?

This would have been huge, not necessarily because Jett Howard or whoever else from the 2023 draft would have helped the Bulls. But that '23 pick could have gone to San Antonio in the DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade.

Instead, the Bulls still owe their 2025 first-rounder to the Spurs, so that's hanging over their heads. It's top-10 protected in '25, which means the Bulls could try to be bad next year in an effort to keep the pick, but that creates a new set of problems. And they'd still owe the Spurs a first-rounder in '26 or '27.

The Bulls are owed a first-round pick from Portland from the Lauri Markkanen trade, but that's top-14 protected. The Blazers need to make the playoffs in a difficult Western Conference for that pick to change hands.

Would Orlando have caved if the Bulls held the line at Wendell Carter Jr. and one first-round pick? We'll never know, but it's safe to say the Magic hasn't spent a single second regretting that deal. Landing Franz Wagner with the 2021 Bulls pick launched Orlando's turnaround. From the Bulls' side, hanging up the phone was an option.

— What if the Bulls had never offered Zach LaVine a max deal?

Here's a rundown of what could have happened instead: LaVine agrees to a smaller contract with the Bulls. The two sides work out a trade. LaVine walks away and signs with another team.

All three are better outcomes than what the Bulls currently face. Last season was a net positive with the improvement of Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu, but it will be difficult to add any helpful pieces to the roster with LaVine's three years and $138 million clogging the payroll.

— Speaking of contracts, what if the Bulls stuck to two years for Vucevic's latest deal instead of three?

Seriously, who were they bidding against last summer when they decided to give the veteran center a fully-guaranteed three years for $60 million? Had they stuck with two years, Vucevic's expiring contract might be a useful piece in a trade. With two years left, not so much.

After committing to Vucevic, the Bulls could have played through him more often, maybe take advantage of his high basketball IQ to try to emulate what Denver does with Nikola Jokic. That didn't happen.

Another option is to build around perimeter defense, utilizing Alex Caruso and an abundance of long-armed guards like Dosunmu, Dalen Terry, Julian Phillips, possibly Lonzo Ball. To make that work, the Bulls need rim protection, something Vucevic doesn't do.

At the least, they could try to add some length with this year's No. 11 draft pick. Indiana's Kel'el Ware is a player to watch or maybe Connecticut's Donovan Clingan will drop.

What else can the Bulls do? The East is loaded with high-priced players in need of new homes. New York's Julius Randle, Milwaukee's Damian Lillard, Atlanta's Trae Young could be on the move.

There's talk of Cleveland choosing between Donovan Mitchell or Darius Garland. Brooklyn has the expensive, expiring contract of Ben Simmons to use in a trade. A number of teams in the West will try to retool. I'm not optimistic any team will be willing to take on LaVine's contract, but we'll see.

The Bulls are reportedly adding two new assistant coaches, including former Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. Billy Donovan is heading into his fifth season and seems safe, but NBA coaches don't generally have long shelf lives. This is probably the end of the road if the Bulls don't take a step past the play-in.

Twitter: @McGrawDHSports

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.