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A whole new playoff race

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The Bulls were straddling a line that made their trade deadline quite interesting. They wanted to give up a long-term contract, yet tried to make sure their present-day chances for the playoffs weren't diminished too much.

I still believe that within those limits they did a good job. They knew they had a small margin for error with this team, and while they took a hit in terms of present-day talent (despite early returns and gushing praise from the Bulls media arms) it didn't look to be enough to critically hurt their playoff chances.

But Joakim Noah was expected to come back at that time. And now, after a brief return, he's been shut down for 3 additional weeks, a minimum and (as we've already seen this season) unreliable prognosis.

In a 5-team race for 4 spots with the rest of this month being the most difficult, the Bulls could very easily find their way out of the playoffs by the end of March. The Bulls greatest strengths (beyond the 'save us Derrick Rose' mode) all season have been their team defense and their offensive rebounding, and Noah is critical to both. That effect is on top of what they already lost in those areas due to their deadline deals. While the replacements will mean a better and more skilled offensive team, I doubt it'll be enough to make up the difference on the other end.

But it's still the East, and the Bulls likely have another late-season surge (schedule gets easier too) in their pocket if they're within striking distance. Plus their destruction of the NBA dregs over the last couple weeks gave them a 2.5 game cushion (as of Wednesday night). It won't be some kind of speech or 'wanting it' that keeps them afloat*, but for players to conveniently not schedule their slumps (i.e. Miller and Hinrich) and for no other injuries (Deng) to occur in that time.

One thing that is certainly now far-fetched is the expectation of them getting the 5 seed, the best evidence for a  'team on the rise' narrative heading into this offseason. But even as an 8 seed, while they'd miss the chance at a potentially competitive first round, still means 'playoff team'. Which I'm told (and still somewhat believe) is important.

But I have to wonder if the Bulls miscalculated \how important it really was. If they cleared more salary at the deadline and more substantially hurt their present-day team, and they missed the playoffs, would the luster have worn off of the 'team on the rise'? Maybe the same changes plus Hinrich gone, and Noah hurt on top of it (though maybe Tyrus stays in that scenario? still productive, if a pain in Vinny's arse if that's the case) they get to be too overmatched and truly go into a tailspin.

But if they were still competitive, and Rose was showing off in winning them a couple games they shouldn't, even if they missed the playoffs would that really have been a much more different free agent pitch? The more this free agency approaches, the more I feel like the Bulls are powerless in recruitment anyway. The decision of the biggest of free agents to come to the Bulls will be serendipitous if anything. So if all else is equal, maybe if the Bulls had to do it over again they would've focused more on the 'move money' goal of the deadline instead of making the playoffs, which they may not do (and likely won't do so impressively) anyway.

*Side note on that Sam Smith piece: First of all, I don't think anyone questions the Bulls play hard, so I don't get the need to call them out to do so as a response to Noah's injury. But I find it funny that while Sam lauds the Bulls for keeping players under contract because they're not motivated by free agency, he goes through possible players (and coaches) to send a message, and Kirk Hinrich isn't even mentioned. Isn't he the intangible-filled team captain? Wouldn't this be a reason to keep him, since the on-court production is meh at best? Or is all that 'glue guy' talk mostly puffy nonsense.