After a thrilling semi-final round, which featured two Game 7’s and numerous comebacks, it’s time for the NBA conference finals to begin. For the first time in 26 years and only the second time in NBA history according to StatMuse, neither of the No. 1 seeds from the each conference are still playing. The 76ers suffered a crushing defeat at home to the Atlanta Hawks in game 7 on Sunday while Utah watched a massive lead slip away to the Clippers and were eliminated on Friday. Now the conference final matchups are set with the Phoenix Suns facing off against LA in the West while the Milwaukee Bucks take on the in the East.
There are a handful of former Bulls who be vying for the chance to make it to the Finals. Bobby Portis was a viable bench contributor for Milwaukee against Miami and partly against Brooklyn but didn’t see the floor for the last three games of the series. Tony Snell has also struggled to find time on the floor as he’s averaged just under 7 minutes a game in his appearances along with five DNP’s. Both can still contribute in some ways when called upon. Portis can serve as a scoring spark off the bench while Snell is still a threat from long range.
Meanwhile in the Western Conference, Rajon Rondo is one of three point guards Ty Lue deploys for the Clippers. He logged 22 minutes in game one of the WCF, scoring eight points and dishing out seven assists. Meanwhile for Phoenix, E’Twaun Moore still gets backup minutes while Cameron Payne started at point guard in Game 1 thanks to Chris Paul being ruled out due to Health and Safety Protocols. It’s been quite the ride for Payne to get to this moment, who after his time in Chicago, spent time overseas and in the G-League. His tenure in Chicago was rather disappointing after he was one of the returns from the Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott trade back in 2017. Now, Payne looks to be a completely revitalized player and one who was completely different than the one Bulls fans saw. He averaged 8.4 points and 3.6 assists on 60.2 percent true shooting this past year. Payne has stepped up in a backup point guard during the playoffs, scoring in double digits five times. He was especially big against the Lakers, averaging 12.5 points and shot 42.5 percent from three on 4.3 attempts per game against the defending champs. Payne has been one of the feel-good stories of this NBA postseason.
Meanwhile the current edition of the Bulls are still waiting for their first playoff appearance in 2016 and haven’t made it past the first round since 2014. The front office of Arturas Karnisvoas and Marc Eversley face another key offseason as they have to improve on the roster they currently have. There will also have to be decisions made about the eventual Zach LaVine contract extension as well. After the Vucevic trade, the Bulls seem all in on this current core group of players as the ones who will get them back to the playoffs. However, they have to keep acquiring solid complementary pieces either through free agency or trade, to help out their two All-Stars.
Again, these conference finals are another opportunity for fans to wonder about how a Chicago playoff team would look like. A team like the Suns are prime example of the squad they should be looking to create. As noted by Jason Patt in their previous open thread, it’s possible that with better pieces surrounding LaVine (such as a possible upgrade at point guard), he and Chicago can take a similar leap into playoff contention that Phoenix did this past season. All of that remains to be seen but as the conference finals go on, it’s another stark reminder of how much work the Bulls still have to do to before they become contenders. They did a good job in being aggressive and acquiring Vucevic at the trade deadline. Now it’s time to built up on that move and add more pieces to this team.