Concern varies as Bulls and other contenders emerge from the All-Star break
The Bulls need a lot to go right to be perfectly whole for a playoff push, but there is optimism they will be. Some other contending teams in the Eastern Conference can’t say the same.
The Bulls have 23 regular-season games remaining.
And guard Zach LaVine made no bones about it: Every player in the rotation will be important, but a lot of it still falls on the shoulders of DeMar DeRozan.
Not just on the court, where DeRozan has emerged as a top-five MVP candidate, but maybe more importantly, off of it.
“I’m glad to have another guy that’s been in these situations, these big-time games, where we haven’t been in that before,’’ LaVine said, when discussing DeRozan’s influence. “You know he’s been to the Eastern Conference finals a couple of times and been in big moments. His calmness is something that’s always been impressive to me.’’
It’s a calmness that will be needed.
Of the 23 remaining games, 18 of them are against teams currently sitting in at least a spot for the play-in game or higher. The hope is the Bulls could be fully healthy by the third week of March, which could leave them about 12 games to get reacquainted before the playoffs begin.
Considering some of the health issues other contending teams are going through, the Bulls might actually be in a good situation. That’s why on the Concern Scale for the playoffs — with 10 being the biggest concern — the Bulls are at a solid four.
They still need Alex Caruso (wrist), Lonzo Ball (knee) and Patrick Williams (wrist) to all fully recover and be back in a rhythm before the playoffs start, but the three of them haven’t had any setbacks yet, so there’s reason to be optimistic they’ll be ready.
How the other Eastern Conference contending teams rate on the Concern Scale:
Heat — Concern Scale: 2.
Markieff Morris is still dealing with a bad neck, but guard Victor Oladipo (knee) was finally playing five-on-five with the G-League team and could be back in the next few weeks. After dealing with some early-season injuries, Miami could be as healthy as any team in the league when the playoffs start.
They haven’t really needed Morris since he felt the wrath of Nikola Jokic, and Oladipo hasn’t been ready to play all season, so both are luxuries for the postseason.
76ers — Concern Scale: 2
With Ben Simmons now a Nets problem, all eyes shift to James Harden and his trick hamstring. He plans to play his first game with Joel Embiid on Friday against the host Timberwolves.
As long as Harden’s left hamstring holds up, the new-look 76ers will have 24 games to get comfortable with each other.
Bucks — Concern Scale: 5
Brook Lopez’s back surgery has taken a huge piece from the defending champions, but there’s optimism that he will return at some point. But that’s a big if. The Bucks acquired Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline because they were concerned about Lopez and knew they needed another big man to match up against Embiid and the Heat’s Bam Adebayo.
Pat Connaughton (hand), another important role player, is expected to return in mid-March.
Nets — Concern Scale: 9.
Kevin Durant (knee) was on the mend coming out of the break, and while the timetable is vague, it did sound like it would be sooner than later. That would immediately change the Nets’ fortunes.
But there is still the mask mandate in New York that sidelines Kyrie Irving for home games, as well as the mental-health concerns hovering over Simmons. Both Irving and Simmons have a history of disappearing in key playoff moments — whether it’s injury or seemingly looking disinterested in being a factor — so those reputations can only be changed through action.
Also, Joe Harris might need a second procedure on his ankle, so don’t count on him returning.