The Chicago Bulls have won five of seven games and are creeping back to .500 and into the Eastern Conference playoff race -- they currently sit sixth at 14-18, with eight of their next nine opponents currently holding a record below .500. So while the 2013-14 season is still alive and well for Tom Thibodeau's group, who, when healthy, is arguably one of the five best teams in the Eastern Conference, they'll also want to keep an eye on how the Charlotte Bobcats fare in the second half of the season.
That's because for the first time since 2010, the odds are in favor of the Bulls securing Charlotte's first-round pick as part of a deal for Tyrus Thomas nearly four years ago.
On Feb. 18, 2010, the Bulls swung a trade-deadline deal with the Bobcats, sending Thomas to the Bobcats in exchange for Flip Murray, Acie Law and a protected, future first-round pick. The deal stipulated that the pick was lottery-protected (Top 14) in 2012, and that year the Bobcats drafted second, taking Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Last year the pick was Top 12 protected, and the Bobcats selected fourth, drafting Indiana's Cody Zeller.
This season the pick is Top 10 protected, in 2015 it drops to Top 8 protected, and in 2016 the pick becomes unprotected.
Such a valuable asset has been written about ever since the trade occurred -- and since Thomas flopped (the 27-year-old is currently out of the NBA) -- and for the first time it appears the Bulls have a good chance of receiving that pick in June's star-studded draft.
Behind head coach Steve Clifford, the Bobcats have been one of the league's bigger surprises at 15-20. That may not sound impressive, but remember it's the Eastern Conference we're talking about; 15-20 is good for 7th place, a current playoff spot.
The offseason signing of center Al Jefferson, combined with point guard Kemba Walker's continued improvement has made Charlotte a more efficient team, and they're playing as though they'll be selecting outside of the Top 10.
Plenty could change between now and the end of the regular season, but currently the No. 10 pick in the draft (pre-Lottery) is the Lakers at 14-20. That's just one one-half game worse than the Bobcats, but if Charlotte makes the playoffs, they're out of the Lottery, regardless of record.
As the No. 7 seed in the East, Charlotte would pick No. 16 if the season ended today, presuming they don't beat 2-seed Miami Heat and advance in the playoffs.
And while the Top 8 protected pick in 2015 and especially the unprotected pick in 2016 could yield high-impact players, the 2014 draft projects to be one of the deepest in league history. The big names such as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Dante Exum will headline the draft, but there are players projected to be taken in the teens such as wings Rodney Hood (Duke), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), James Young (Kentucky) or Wayne Selden (Kansas) that would be Top 10 picks most years.
The Bulls may have that Charlotte pick and their own first-round pick to use, either to draft two potential core pieces or to bundle to move up in a draft that features likely a handful of future All-Stars.
With Derrick Rose expected to return 100 percent healthy by training camp, overseas star Nikola Mirotic potentially coming to Chicago next season, as well as the chance for two first-round picks to go with Tony Snell, Jimmy Butler and the rest of the Bulls' core, the youth movement in Chicago may be closer than once thought, and the returns for the future look bright.