Offseason ‘plans’ are nice, but Bulls aren’t alone in East

There is almost no chance the Bulls can climb into the top three of the Eastern Conference over the next few seasons, and when taking a closer look, it won’t be easy to climb into the top eight.

SHARE Offseason ‘plans’ are nice, but Bulls aren’t alone in East
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Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas made it clear in his end-of-the-season news conference that he has a plan.

The details, however, are where there’s some serious uncertainty.

‘‘At this point in time, I cannot tell you what the plan is going to look like,’’ Karnisovas said last month. ‘‘But I can tell you that we’ll look at every possible way to improve the team. You cannot skip steps. So the greatest lessons are learned through experiencing what doesn’t work.

‘‘We have to grow from going through what we went through this year and move forward to gain respect in this league. We are certainly not satisfied. But we will learn from it, adjust and make sure what did not go well does not happen again.’’

That’s good because it can’t.

A team with two All-Stars in guard Zach LaVine and center Nikola Vucevic should not have been sitting at home for the last few weeks. It should have been playing — then getting eliminated by — a team such as the Nets or Bucks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Instead, Karnisovas still is tinkering with the blueprints in an effort to get the Bulls to that spot.

Could the Bulls jump into the same class the 76ers, Nets and Bucks now occupy? That would be almost impossible. Those three teams likely will be at the top of the Eastern Conference for at least a couple of more seasons.

No, this is about the Bulls jumping from lottery irrelevance to being in that pack of playoff teams looking to stay alive for as long as they can.

That’s the next step.

And, as Karnisovas indicated, ‘‘You cannot skip steps.’’

New York Knicks

Final 2020-21 seed:Fourth.

Payroll for 2021-22 season:$49.7 million.

Outlook:No team is in a better salary-cap situation than the Knicks heading into free agency this summer. Problem is, it’s not a star-heavy free-agent class. Could they add key contributors to play alongside Julius Randle and an emerging RJ Barrett? Absolutely. Expect them to be in on players such as Lonzo Ball and Lauri Markkanen.

Likelihood of the Bulls jumping them:Small. While the Bulls are more talented on paper, the Knicks simply will play harder than LaVine, Vucevic and Co. during the course of a season. That’s what Tom Thibodeau-coached teams do.

Atlanta Hawks

Final 2020-21 seed:Fifth.

Payroll for 2021-22 season:$95.4 million.

Outlook:While the old Bulls regime was making mistake after mistake during the rebuild, the Hawks were doing the opposite. Their draft picks have panned out, and their free-agent decision-making has been way better than the Bulls’ since 2017. It will be interesting to see what happens with restricted free agent John Collins.

Likelihood of the Bulls jumping them:Small. The Hawks have a better all-around team, both with their starting lineup and their depth. They also have cap room to retain Collins or shop elsewhere.

Miami Heat

Final 2020-21 seed:Sixth.

Payroll for 2021-22 season:$77.8 million.

Outlook:Something was off all season with the Heat. Whether it was fatigue from reaching the NBA Finals in the bubble last season and having a quick turnaround or a growing chemistry issue in the locker room, the culture looked broken. Expect Pat Riley to fix that and for them to continue to build around Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

Likelihood of the Bulls jumping them:Small. Riley doesn’t let issues fester; he cleans them up immediately. Expect changes, and the Heat’s ‘‘Big Two’’ are just better all-around players than the Bulls’ ‘‘Big Two.’’

Boston Celtics

Final 2020-21 seed:Seventh.

Payroll for 2021-22 season:$132.9 million.

Outlook:The front office already is getting an overhaul, with Danny Ainge retiring as president and Brad Stevens moving out of his coaching seat into Ainge’s office. Barring a trade, the roster is pretty much locked in. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum will be the focal points, surrounded by Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart in the last season of his contract.

Likelihood of the Bulls jumping them:Small. Even with the massive changes going on upstairs, the Celtics are just better than the Bulls when they’re healthy. Smart would be a big loss if they move him, but Brown and Tatum are a handful, even with Walker’s ugly contract.

Washington Wizards

Final 2020-21 seed:Eighth.

Payroll for 2021-22 season:$121.8 million.

Outlook:It will be very difficult to move Russell Westbrook ($44.2 million next season) or Bradley Beal ($34.5 million next season) this summer, so it looks like another year of building around that backcourt. That means players such as Deni Avdija and Rui Hachimura will have to continue to develop at a high level. Beal and Westbrook are good enough to carry a team to the postseason, but they have no staying power in the playoffs.

Likelihood of the Bulls jumping them:Great. There’s no reason a healthy Bulls team couldn’t have done what the Wizards did the last month by getting hot and earning the No. 8 seed in a play-in game. The teams are similar in talent.

Indiana Pacers

Final 2020-21 seed:Ninth.

Payroll for 2021-22 season:$119.6 million.

Outlook:The medical setback for Caris LeVert and losing Myles Turner to a season-ending foot injury were massive gut punches for the Pacers. When healthy, LeVert, Turner, Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis are a formidable four-headed monster. The Pacers have an interesting offseason ahead of them.

Likelihood of the Bulls jumping them:Good. Even when healthy, the Pacers have some deficiencies that can be exposed. It feels like some changes might be coming, but their four main players are locked in at least through the 2022-23 season.

Charlotte Hornets

Final 2020-21 seed:Tenth.

Payroll for 2021-22 season:$83.1 million.

Outlook:As goes LaMelo Ball, so go the Hornets. The rookie showed star potential in his 51 games and has some young pieces around him in P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges. Gordon Hayward was solid when healthy, but his injury problems remain a concern, especially for the money he’s making.

Likelihood of the Bulls jumping them:Great. The Bulls should havefinished better than the Hornets this season. They swept them during the regular season and matched up well with the Hornets’ strengths on both ends. If the Bulls can’t jump them in the standings next season, the roster might need a purge.

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