The Bulls have a long way to go in general before they’re serious contenders for anything, but watching the East playoffs this season is offering up a glimpse of just how difficult it could be to get back to the NBA Finals.
At some point, LeBron James will either leave the East or actually show legitimate playoff decline. We haven’t seen that decline yet as he romps his way through the conference again, though there have been plenty of rumblings about him ditching the Cavaliers and heading out west.
But even looking past LeBron’s Cavaliers, the Celtics and 76ers have cores in place that could rule the East for some time and be the next roadblocks in the Bulls’ way. Plus, there’s also the possibility LeBron goes to Philly to join Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Co.
The Sixers showed their youth in their 4-1 second-round loss to the Celtics, but they blossomed into one of the most fearsome teams in the league over the last couple of months. Embiid is a complete monster when healthy who still has room for improvement as he works to get in better shape and continues to refine his game at the age of 24. Simmons’ flaws and lack of a jumper hindered him against Boston, but he’s 21 and was mostly remarkable this season, even without a jumper.
The 24-year-old Saric developed nicely in just his second season, and Robert Covington is a nice piece to have around, even if he stunk it up in the playoffs. Markelle Fultz is a wild card at this point, but I’m assuming he figures things out and is at least a useful player. On top of these guys, the Sixers are in line for the No. 10 pick this year and have a group of young Euros and other draft-and-stash guys waiting in the wings. They have cap space to make a run at LeBron, Paul George or somebody else. They made a huge jump this year and should only get better next season.
Then there’s the Celtics.
I’ve enjoyed chiding the Celtics and their fans the past couple of years, so this deep playoff run without Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving has been both nauseating to watch and admittedly impressive, though I say that begrudgingly. For all the criticism Danny Ainge has taken, he’s coming up aces.
It’s early, but the Jayson Tatum-Fultz deal is looking like a complete heist. Jaylen Brown is already blossoming into a star. Tatum and Brown are 20 and 21, respectively, and they just combined to shoot 18-of-28 in a closeout game to reach the ECF. Terry Rozier is doing a darn good Kyrie impression and making a lot of people look like dopes for making jokes about Ainge not trading him last season for a Serge Ibaka who looks washed up. They have one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens and other young role players who have made contributions.
There will be questions about how guys like Rozier and Marcus Smart fit in as they come up for new contracts and get more expensive. Al Horford is also turning 32 in June, though he’s a guy who will likely age well given his versatility and smarts.
Regardless, we’re looking at a team missing two All-Stars making it to the Eastern Conference Finals on the backs of Horford and a bunch of young studs. They have a ton of assets in terms of on-court talent plus more valuable draft picks, even after the Nets heist. They’ll continue to be a part of every trade discussion that involves star players, with Anthony Davis as the ultimate potential prize down the line if the Pelicans don’t take another step forward and he looks to go elsewhere.
All this to say the Bulls have a tough mountain to climb here, and this is before considering other potential teams in the way like the Bucks if they ever get their shit together around Giannis. The Bulls have what looks to be a foundational player in Lauri Markkanen and some other young guys with potential, but it’s going to take a lot to go right for them and a lot to go wrong for these other squads for Chicago to rule the East. That’s not to say it can’t happen because nothing is ever guaranteed, but it’s the truth.
I trust the Bulls realize this, and while I want them to be patient as they rebuild, they can’t just wait out these teams. They have to face them head-on while hopefully getting some luck in the process.