It sure felt like a night to go the tank route.
Bulls coach Billy Donovan, however, insisted that wasn’t the case.
When asked if there were any discussions with executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas about sitting guys with only eight games left in the regular season, Donovan said, “No, I haven’t had any conversations like that. Our focus [was on the Hawks on Saturday] and then it will be coming back against Philly [on Monday], but we have not had any discussions along those lines at all.’’
Considering how transparent Donovan has been with the media, there’s no reason to doubt him, but there’s also the reality of dealing with the league and how much it frowns on teams when there’s even a hint of tanking.
The Bulls were without All-Star guard Zach LaVine and reserve guard Troy Brown Jr., and minutes before tipoff, they announced that All-Star center Nikola Vucevic was a late scratch after dealing with tightness in his right adductor.
So what would be the incentive to be overly cautious with players at the expense of games at this point for the Bulls? After all, they’re still in the running for a play-in spot and could be in the mix until the last few games of the season.
It comes down to math.
The Bulls are not eliminated, but they’re in a very tough situation in chasing the Wizards. Washington has an easier schedule and has been playing consistent basketball the last few weeks.
All the Bulls have on their side is the tiebreaker over the Wizards and the hope that LaVine might return from the health and safety protocol at some point next week.
But if the Bulls nose-dive down the stretch, miss the play-in and fall deeper into the lottery, there’s a chance they could still salvage something from the 2021 draft with lottery luck. The Vucevic trade cost them a first-round pick, but it’s protected one through four.
As of Saturday, the Bulls were sitting in the No. 7 spot, having only a 6% chance to land the No. 1 pick, but a 26.3% chance to land in the top four and retain the pick.
The best-case scenario would be they added Vucevic to go along with LaVine, can continue developing 2020 first-round pick Patrick Williams, then hit a top-four spot in the 2021 lottery and land Cade Cunningham or Jalen Suggs to solve the point-guard issues.
Obviously, a lot would have to break their way, and there’s a definite gamble going that route, but it’s much better than a scenario in which they miss the postseason and lose the draft pick to the Magic.
Vucevic admittedly is not the most vocal leader, but he will speak up when he feels it’s the right time. With so much still at stake for the Bulls and an uphill climb in front of them, he did talk about the best philosophy to take down the stretch.
“We can sit here and cry about it and be disappointed, but it won’t do us any good,’’ Vucevic said. “We just have to move on, take the wins and losses as they come and continue to move forward. You have to have a short memory.’’