TONIGHT. We will all bear witness to some crucial jockeying for some bottom-barrel Eastern Conference playoff slotting. I know, I know. All of Chicago is aquiver with anticipation, I'm sure. Whatever the temperature of Bulls fan excitement, this Chicago squad will be suiting up sans Pau Gasol, whom the Bulls' front office suggests will miss "a bit" of time after an MRI scan of his swollen right knee. So... maybe he'll back in August when we sign the 36 year-old to a $60 million, 3-year contract? Sound about right? Great. But that's not all, as Nick Friedell has reported that we may be down two other starters. (Hoiberg sounds more optimistic on Mike Dunleavy's prospects tonight, D-Rose remains a game-time decision). Plus JoNo, of course, as well as the immortal Cameron Bairstow.
The silver lining to the 33-32 Bulls' to-this-point disappointing NBA season? Our playoffs effectively start RIGHT NOW. Every one of these next 17 games is going to play a monumental role in determining inter-conference seeding as the schedule inches ever closer to the postseason. As we know all too well, this particular postseason is one that Chicago may very well not be a part of. In fact, there's a particularly crucial stretch that kicks off tonight, as 3 of Los Bulls' next 11 games come against one of the other teams sporting a realistic shot at the last two playoff spots in the East. Beyond the 31-35 Wizards (the current 10-seed) tonight, we square off against the 36-31 Pacers (the 7-seed, 2 games ahead of the Bulls) on the 29th and host the 34-33 Pistons (the 9-seed by mere percentage points behind us) on April 2nd. And make no mistake, after doing everything we possibly could to lose that game on Monday (including getting intimidated by fucking Drake) but somehow pulling out the W, we want that 7-seed. The Bulls have won their last nine regular season games against the Toronto Raptors, who are firmly ensconced in the 2nd spot for these playoffs. For whatever reason (probably Toronto's horrific defense without starting small forward DeMarre Carroll), we continue to beat them. They've had two straight first-round playoff exits, one an understandable Game 7 defeat at the hands of a mediocre Brooklyn team, the other a hilarious shellacking by tonight's opposition, the Wizards. With Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler on hand, we can actually beat them, you guys. I swear. But first we'd have to catch and supplant a healthier, better-coached (sorry, Fred) Pacers team. Point being -- this next month is going to be a grind of very erratic basketball. Would the Bulls make it past their opponent in the semifinal round? Possibly if it's the Hawks, but definitely not if it's the Celtics or the Heat. But still.
Another frustrating note as the Bulls travel to the Verizon Center against John Wall and the Wiz: Chicago is 1-8 in their last 9 away games (but, uh, 1-0 in our last 1 away game! So, you know, thanks, Toronto). The Bulls have split their season series to date with Washington. Their latest battle, February 24th, was a surprising victory, achieved in the absence of Rose or Butler. They did, however, have Pau and MDJ that go-around; their balanced offensive attack (led by Taj Gibson and the ascendant E'Twaun Moore, with 17 points apiece) yielded 7 Bulls players scoring in double-digits. The Wizards have been without 6'5" sweet-shooting wing Bradley Beal for much of the season (he's missed 24 games so far), and that trend will (fortunately for us) probably carry over into tonight, as he struggles with a lingering hip injury. After signing a 1-year, $4 million contract to spot Wall and Beal as a key bench cog, off-guard Alan Anderson had to undergo a left ankle surgery in October (after having a prior surgery to remove bone fragments there in May). He made his season debut during Washington's last bout against Chicago, scoring 9 points on 75% field goal shooting and notching a stellar +11 in +/-. After Washington's 43-point beatdown of the Pistons on Monday, Anderson has been struggling with -- you guessed it -- ankle injuries, and is questionable for tonight's game! So to back up injury-prone shooting guard Bradley Beal last summer, GM Ernie Grunfeld elected to sign... injury-prone shooting guard Alan Anderson, who has played in a whopping total of 8 games this season, and may be missing another few games of action in the days to come.
Let's look at some match-ups, shall we?
PG: J-Wall vs. D-Rose -- Two Calipari speed demon super-athletes race each other up and down the hardwood, in an exciting... oh, wait, what's that? Derrick Rose is nursing a lingering injury and remains a game-time decision tonight? Really? That never happens though! Crazy, crazy news. So, uh, John Wall vs. E'Twaun Moore, then. Welp, the one thing I will say in Fred Hoiberg's favor as a coach is that he has realized that Moore is clearly leagues beyond Aaron Brooks as the first guard option off the bench, which is something that neither the Bulls' front office nor their prior coach seemed to understand. Unfortunately, Moore, a nice player who is having by far his best pro season (shooting 49.3% from the field, including a fantastic 45.2% from 3-point range), is facing off against an All-Star in his prime, newly galvanized by this post-season push (and newly pumped about Randy Wittman's tweaked pick-and-roll defense that proved so effective against the Pistons on Monday). Honestly, I would posit that Moore, who again is our best back-up guard, is a below-average back-up first option-guard. I mean, seriously, we could've had Jeremy Lin if we had just renounced our claim to Aaron Brooks and avoided re-signing Moore to a guaranteed deal. Ah well.
SG: Garrett Temple vs. Justin Holiday -- Let's just move on. Okay, I will say, begrudgingly, that Holiday actually has some upside, and could be a legit improvement over Kirk this season. Which is a pleasant surprise, even if the Bulls' trade activity at the deadline was still a massive disappointment overall. Temple, a hoops journeyman, is still better, though. If Dunleavy does indeed return, then Jimmy Butler (see below) could just massacre Garrett Temple, and MDJ could get all up in Porter's jersey. Fingers crossed for that.
SF: Otto Porter vs. Jimmy G. Buckets -- Now a full-time starter, the third year 22 year-old out of Georgetown is having his best NBA season by far. Is he ever going to live up to the hype of being a #3 lottery pick? Probably not, but the 6'8", 198-pound small forward is shooting 46.5% from the field, a decent 33.5% from 3, and 73.8% from the charity stripe, good for a slash line of 11.5 points, 5 rebounds, and a shitty 1.7 assists in 30.1 minutes. Jimmy Butler has added a handle, and were it not for this scary knee issue and the Bulls' middling record (a lot of which was accrued in games without Butler), would be having his best NBA season so far. The 6'7" kid from Tomball also has 20+ pounds on his longer-limbed opposition.
PF: Markieff Morris vs. Nikola Mirotic -- The so-called Better Morris Brother was a much-needed deadline addition to the Wizards after a poor showing in Phoenix this season. He's still having a pretty down year, and his shooting woes have continued in the nation's capital (he's averaging just 42.5% from the field, quite bad for a big guy, and hoisting up 1.9 3-point attempts per game, despite connecting on a miserable 23.1% of them). But he's started in 8 of his 14 games for the Wizards (soon to be 9 of 15), and he brings some much-needed interior toughness. Also, unlike, say, Nene, he doesn't get hurt all the time. Since coming back, Threekola has been serviceable. Across five games, he's averaging 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds in just over 23 minutes a night. He's been shooting 39.2% from deep and a stellar 86.9% from the free throw line (in 3 attempts per game, a decent sum considering his finite minutes). Lamely, he continues to shoot poorly elsewhere, averaging just 40.5% shooting from the field after his return against Houston. He's still a mystery wrapped inside an enigma now. I used to think his ceiling was Peja, but now I'd settle for Ryan Anderson.
C: Marcin Gortat vs. Taj Gibson -- Dual of the chrome domes, son! Taj has taken on the mantel of spiritual team leader in Noah's absence, and now that he's a full-time starter, his defensive moxie is on full display. That hasn't translated into any awe-inspiring stats, but make no mistake, he's having one of his best seasons at age 30. Gortat is having another very solid year, averaging a near-double of 13.4 points and 9.8 boards a night, shooting a very efficient 55.4% from the floor (the seventh-best qualifying field goal percentage this year). He doesn't have that Taj jumper, but with his size advantage as a true center (all 6'11" of him, compared to Taj's 6'8" frame), he's going to be a tough cover.
Prognosis: Bulls, with a 15-point lead early in the 4th quarter, almost let it slip away before being bailed out by a clutch Jimmy Butler stop. Hoiball wins by 5.
-That Mike Dunleavy contract will be totally flippable come the summer salary cap explosion. Can we move him, Snell and, say, a second-rounder for a younger wing, an Arron Afflalo/Courtney Lee type?
-How much will Joakim Noah command on the open market? I do think a lot of the league still remembers him as he was, so there is a distinct possibility that he'll get a crazy $18 million-ish per year offer. Do I personally think the Bulls should much something at that level? Nah. But I'd pay him as much as $12-14 million per, honestly (which is what he's making now, but would be the equivalent of a pay demotion next summer). He's still the emotional heart and soul of this squad, still can get up and down the court when healthy, and still a first-rate defender. His passing gene on offense remains one of his best covert assets, too.
Broadcast: 6 p.m. on WGN-TV/ESPN AM-1000