Despite all of the constant (albeit usually justified) pessimism that permeates throughout BaB, pretty much every Bulls fan would have called you crazy for predicting that the team would miss the playoffs this season. I mean, even with Tom Thibodeau axed to make way for the Hoibergo menace, and Derrick Rose destined to see double for the first two months of the season, how could you form such a ridiculous conclusion?
And yet, with less than a month remaining in what has been yet another captivating NBA season, here we all are. The Chicago Bulls are on the precipice of missing the playoffs for the first time in the last eight seasons.
What a time to be alive!
Fortunately, the Bulls are in a much better place than they were last week, or even at the start of March. Last week, FiveThirtyEight had the Bulls slotted with a 19% chance of making the playoffs to go along with a projected final record of 40-42. This week, Nate Silver and friends raised that number a bit thanks to the Bulls going 4-1 over the last seven days and scoring a win over the Toronto Raptors on the road. Now, the Bulls have a 33% chance to make the playoffs and are projected to finish with a 42-40 record.
That's the good news. There's a lot more bad news, starting with that the Bulls only have five more regular season home games, have three back-to-backs left, and have only two games left against the teams challenging them for the bottom two East playoff seeds. None of this bodes well when considering how much consistency the team will need down the stretch to overcome these various factors, something the Bulls haven't had for quite some time.
But that's not the end of it either. The Bulls' fall from playoff grace has opened the door for three hungry teams to snatch their once thought-to-be guaranteed spot in the postseason. They are:
The Detroit Pistons
Of the three other teams worth keeping an eye on during this final stretch of regular season games, the fancy FiveThirtyEight projections state that the Pistons have the worst chance to make the playoffs at 39%. Interestingly, despite the fact that the team currently has a 37-34 record, they are favored to win only five more games.
Although Stephen Noh pointed out last week that they have a nine game home stand to close out March, they have a particularly challenging April ahead of them. To close out the season, the Pistons will embark on a stretch that includes a home-and-home against Miami, a back-to-back featuring Dallas at home followed by a critical playoff contention game in Chicago the next day, and another critical playoff contention game at home versus the Wizards. Unfortunately, these are all games that the Pistons are capable of winning, as they are enjoying a nice run of success since their trade deadline deal that has seen them go 10-5 with wins in Cleveland and against Toronto.
The Pistons should make the playoffs. Andre Drummond is the best rebounder this game has seen since Dennis Rodman and of the four coaches in this scenario, Stan Van Gundy is miles ahead of them all when it comes to basketball knowledge and experience. But two of the teams in this case are not going to the postseason, and one of them has to be the Pistons if the Bulls themselves are going to qualify.
Next, we have...
The Indiana Pacers
The Pacers currently have the highest projection to make the playoffs of all these teams, as FTE currently gives them an 88% chance to qualify for postseason play while finishing with a record of 45-37. This would require the Pacers to win eight of their last twelve games, only five of which come on the road and only one of which comes against a top-8 Western opponent (Houston).
Since the All-Star break, Indiana hasn't had much to gloat about. While they enjoyed a win over the Spurs (a rare feat for any team this season) and picked up Ty Lawson on waivers a few weeks ago, almost all of their other wins post-ASB have come against bottom-tier competition. Wins against Boston, Dallas, and San Antonio are overshadowed by defeats to playoff teams such as Miami, Charlotte (twice), Portland, Cleveland, Atlanta, Toronto, and OKC.
However, fortunately for them, the Pacers' schedule the rest of the way is softer than Drake wearing silk pajamas. They will play New Orleans, Brooklyn (twice), Chicago, Orlando, Philly, New York (twice), and Milwaukee before the season ends. The Pacers could easily win all of those games, but could drop one of them and still satisfy their FTE projection while making the playoffs.
If (when, really) the Pacers make it to the postseason, they won't last long. They haven't played well against contenders at all this season, and they only have one win all year against Cleveland and Toronto combined (a come-from-behind win against a DeMarre Carroll-less Raptors team), the two teams they would see in the first round of the playoffs. Perhaps if they had a more competitive home stretch I would be inclined to feel differently, but there's simply not enough standing in the way of what the Pacers have to do to qualify to convince me that they will be the odd one out of this scenario.
That leaves us with...
The Washington Wizards
Arguably the worst of the three teams in play here (at a glance), FTE has the Wizards' playoff chances at 42% right now to go along with a final record of 42-40. That means that they are projected to win seven of their final twelve games, a feat that will be challenging but isn't necessarily impossible.
We chastise the Bulls almost religiously for their inconsistency, but it's easy to forget how maddeningly inconsistent other NBA teams can be to their own fans. This season, the Wizards have had five different winning and losing streaks each that lasted at least three games. In addition, since losing to Chicago towards the end of February, the Wizards have gone on a four game winning streak, a five game losing streak, and are now enjoying a five game winning streak with their most recent victory being a thumping of a fully healthy Atlanta Hawks team on the road.
This streaky behavior makes it tricky to determine how the Wizards will finish out the remainder of their schedule. On one hand, the Wizards will play four of the five worst teams in the Western Conference all prior to the end of April Fool's Day and also have a home-and-home against the Brooklyn
Nots Nets during the last week of the season. On the other, seven of their final ten games will occur on the road as they gear up for a West Coast road trip that starts with the Lakers on Sunday.
The Wizards are hot right now, John Wall is playing some of the best basketball of his still young career, and fans are swooning over how Markeiff Morris has made everyone on the team better. Their starting lineup has had the second-best Net Rating of any since the All-Star break that has logged at least 100 minutes together, and the thirteenth best for the season under the same standards. However, in the same way Tom Thibodeau always gave the Bulls a shot at victory, Randy Wittman always gives the Wizards a shot at defeat. Because of this and the Wizards' streaky tendencies, I would say that this is likely the other team that falls short of the postseason if the Bulls are to make it there instead.