Eastern Conference playoffs were a reminder of Bulls’ run to mediocrity
At best, the Bulls are built for a top-6 finish in an East that won’t be undergoing many changes at the top this offseason. With the front office stressing continuity with DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and free agent-to-be Zach LaVine, that’s a huge uphill climb.
Jimmy Butler isn’t for everyone.
Then again, master artists aren’t always understood, especially when their medium of choice involves a palette of blood, sweat and mud.
The former Bull displayed his latest masterpiece in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, specifically a historic performance in a Game 6 elimination game in which Butler totaled 47 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and four steals.
And eventually it still wasn’t good enough, with Boston representing the East in the Finals by disposing of Butler and the Heat in Game 7.
That’s what should keep Bulls fans up at night.
They no longer have Butler. There is no homegrown tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown anywhere near the UC.
There is no Joel Embiid in Chicago, nor a Kevin Durant. And if Bulls fans want to watch a player with the two-way skill set of Giannis Antetokounmpo, luckily Milwaukee is only a 90-mile drive away.
The reality check? None of those core players are going away.
The Eastern Conference playoffs were yet another reminder that while the Bulls took a major step in no longer being a punchline, they are still on a collision course with mediocrity with the roster as currently constructed. Good enough to get in the playoffs, but not good enough to get beyond the first or second round.
There is still the draft, and of course there are key free-agent decisions to be made at the end of June.
Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley already have shown a shrewd understanding of roster-building that was forgotten by the old regime.
But the core is still the core.
Continuity was the word of choice used by Karnisovas last month when meeting with the media, which meant there was still a strong belief in Nikola Vucevic, DeMar DeRozan and free-agent-to-be Zach LaVine as the faces of the franchise.
That’s not going to get it done in this conference. Best-case scenario, with apologies to Atlanta, Cleveland and Toronto, five teams still are better than the Bulls in the East, and those five teams aren’t going anywhere.
The beasts of the East likely will return all five starters, including veteran Al Horford in the final year of his deal. Few teams have the ability to score and lock the opposition down like the Celtics, and while championship windows are often false hope, this one has some staying power.
As long as Butler is in uniform, there’s a will and a way to stay an elite team. A decision could be made on Tyler Herro as a long-term option, but Pat Riley is on the Mount Rushmore of executives for a reason, so everything is on the table. Bradley Beal to the Heat, anyone?
The injury to Khris Middleton in the playoffs cut one of the legs off the tripod that is Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Brook Lopez will be a free agent after the 2022-23 season, while the Bucks have some decisions to make in the depth department. Either way, Milwaukee’s Big Three is better than anything the Bulls can throw at them.
No team is better at wearing the “paper champs’’ title better than Durant and the Nets. If they can get Kyrie Irving, Ben Simmons and Durant on the floor at the same time for any extended period of time, however, they will again be a threat to win it all . . . on paper.
Embiid is a Bulls killer and has the perfect role players around him. All eyes will be on James Harden and his $47 million player option this summer, but even with his declining talent, the Hall of Famer has the skill set to make the 76ers a threat.