It's a position in which a majority of NBA teams seek to avoid. A plateaued realm, where you're neither a contender nor a high-lottery team waiting for the next great prospect. Rather, where making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference is your ceiling, competing in the postseason overachieving. The middle.
After Chicago was eliminated from the 2015 playoffs in embarrassing fashion, the front office decided that with a fresh voice that same roster had enough depth and talent to be a conference contender, a championship dark horse. That shortsighted plan failed in the end, as the Bulls missed the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
Disappointed, and rightfully embarrassed by the season's outcome, the front office duo of John Paxson and (to a lighter extent) Gar Forman took the blame for what transpired. The two vowing to make changes and right the ship, whether that's with a full-on rebuild, or keeping the same core and adding talent more accustomed to what Fred Hoiberg wants to achieve.
The NBA Draft Lottery is nearing, and it's all but likely that the Bulls will end up picking 14th in the draft. Draft season and free agency are happening soon, it's still largely unknown as to what direction the Bulls will head in for the foreseeable future.
A full-on rebuild is possible, as rumors persist surrounding Jimmy Butler, specifically with regards to the Boston Celtics and their cupboard of assets. But considering the current makeup of the Bulls, with a relatively young core, the likelihood is that the front office will choose to remain with that core. While Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol appear to be headed onward this summer, there's still enough talent that the Bulls could find themselves in the playoffs again, even as other teams in the East improve.
Though that talent may only warrant a playoff birth, as anything more is highly unlikely. Why? As free agency hits this July, GarPax will look to add three to four new pieces, who (hopefully) fit into Hoiberg's style of play. None of those pieces that they'll add will be of max caliber.
As The Athletic's Stephen Noh pointed out this week, if the Bulls bring back E'Twaun Moore, Chicago will have $22.3 million, room for three free agents. But, if they choose to let him walk, Chicago will still only have $23.6 million and the option to add four free agents. Having roughly $22-$23 million in cap space is not near enough to lure one of this summer's impending max free agents. Their available funds could rise if GarPax were to do some swift maneuvering of players via trade, possibly finding the often-maligned Tony Snell a new home or sending Mike Dunleavy Jr. to a championship contender as his career winds down. But given the Bulls history of making trades, or lack thereof, the Bulls will be looking at that non-max cap space this summer.
That means looking at lower-tier free agents, second tier at best. Guys like Nicolas Batum, Kent Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside have played their way out of the Bulls reach. Instead, Chicago will probably be looking more at players such as Allen Crabbe, Jeremy Lin, Solomon Hill and Bismack Biyombo.
None of those players just mentioned, or those within that same category, will put the Bulls over the top next season or beyond. But it's probably the route that GarPax will take. Presumably, a route they will take that leads them to the postseason once again, as the prospect of accumulating more revenue makes Jerry Reinsdorf giddy at the knees, a playoff streak anew generating butterflies within GarPax.
But this route, again, will only put them in the middle of the Eastern Conference at best. Unless by some magic of the basketball Gods, where Doug McDermott turns into Klay Thompson and Bobby Portis into Draymond Green. The Bulls will probably end up in an area where their ceiling is reaching the playoffs, where competing will be overachieving. Where missing the playoffs becomes unsurprising.
I could very well be wrong, as I am about most things. Maybe the front office may be planning on setting themselves up for the summer of 2017, when the salary cap is set to jump even more and Derrick Rose's (and Taj Gibson's) contract comes off the books. But in looking at the roster, and sensing the anguish which was palpable from watching John Paxson a month ago, getting back to the postseason will be the goal. Actually contending, however, is a separate task in and of itself.