Bulls not alone in race to bottom of the East

Bulls not alone in race to bottom of the East

The Eastern Conference used to be a running joke, or at best, called the “LeBron James Invitational” for the cakewalk James used to have through the playoffs on his way to the Finals.

It used to be just funny fodder.

Now, it really is a joke and the Bulls aren’t in on it—although they’re sure to be part of some laughers next season in the first year of a rebuild. They won’t be alone as the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks will likely follow the Bulls on the yellow brick road to the NBA Draft lottery after the 2017-18 season.

So that makes three of the eight playoff teams who have punted on next season, with All-Stars Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap changing their addresses to go west, weakening an already-weak conference.

Of course, one could make the argument the Bulls could’ve kept Butler and climbed up through osmosis, positioning themselves to be prime players in free agency and the trade market but they refused to take advantage of a more murky road in front of them, choosing to be bad for the foreseeable future.

The view from here says the Bulls should’ve tried building around Butler as opposed to just having him as a piece to a puzzle, then seeing where things could grow from there.

Watching him continue to develop while putting adequate and fitting help around Butler would’ve been curious to watch and the Bulls could’ve achieved their desired goal of making themselves relevant when James’ Eastern Conference run ends soon—as early as the 2018 offseason, where he’s rumored to be taking his talents to the Western Conference to finish his career.

With salary cap space and an attractive market, the Bulls could’ve reformed themselves in the NBA marketplace with Butler as a main attraction, and one wonders if they should’ve made the same decision knowing what was coming in the East.

But facing the thought of giving him another large contract in two years scared them off, and the economics of the NBA has played a big part in how free agency has been handled for the first day or so, as the money has dried up quick—leading to more second-guesses as the Bulls believed teams would overspend and have to trade away good players in the near future, with the Bulls being contestant number one with that key word: Flexibility.

But now, they face the prospect of being one of many in the East trying to win the Michael Porter Jr. (incoming forward to Missouri) sweepstakes next season.

Someone has to win the round robin games between the likes of the Bulls, Pacers, Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and New York Knicks. The race to the bottom won’t be as easy as the Bulls might think, because there’s no guarantee the Detroit Pistons, Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers will take leaps past them.

Heck, it’ll be hard to find 12 Eastern Conference players worthy of being an All-Star next year, let alone eight true playoff teams. The Bulls had to scrap and claw to finish 41-41, and the fifth-seeded Hawks were 43-39, so it’s not hard to envision a team or two making the playoffs with losing records nowhere near the .500 mark—as well as teams who’d rather not make the playoffs qualifying for a first-round series.

Boston will be consistent and Cleveland will cruise through 82 games before James turns it up. Milwaukee, Washington and Toronto will be good enough, assuming they don’t have unexpected freefalls due to inconsistency, but the rest is a crapshoot.

So while the Bulls’ plan to be bad seems smart on the surface, lowering expectations while allowing some of the youth to develop in the meantime without the specter of a prime Butler hanging over them, it’s turned into a tricky proposition very quickly.

At some point, the Eastern Conference will rise again, but will be the Bulls be part of that resurgence, or questioning their not-so-subtle tanking strategy—because they're not the only ones with this bright idea.

Wake-up Call: Rose returning to Chicago?; Willson Contreras takes over; State of Cubs-Cards

Wake-up Call: Rose returning to Chicago?; Willson Contreras takes over; State of Cubs-Cards

Here are the top Chicago sports stories from Thursday: 

Is #TheReturn getting a reboot? Report says there's a possibility Derrick Rose comes back to Bulls

This is becoming Willson Contreras' team, whether or not Cubs add Alex Avila or another veteran catcher

Bears training camp preview: 3 burning questions for tight ends

Why Blackhawks fans might want to tap the brakes on Alex DeBrincat

That escalated quickly: Cubs just a game back of Brewers, could be in first place as soon as this weekend

Ping-pong balls everywhere: Where do the Bulls rank among projected lottery teams?

Joe Maddon's prime-time message: 'Help or die'

Report: Derrick Rose is considering teaming up with LeBron James, Cavs

Cubs Talk Podcast: State of Cubs-Cardinals rivalry and what lies ahead

Why Adam Engel came up with his unique batting stance, and how he's tweaked it since

Playing with the enemy: Chicago athletes who teamed up with rivals

Playing with the enemy: Chicago athletes who teamed up with rivals

Chicago's chosen son may soon play with the enemy. 

According to reports on Thursday, Derrick Rose is in talks to join LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers on a one-year deal. 

That is indeed hard to imagine, considering the former MVP has spent years battling James for supremacy in the Eastern Conference. But leaving the Windy City to join a rival team isn't a new concept. 

In fact, a few Chicago superstar athletes have done it before: 

-- Chris Chelios, Blackhawks to Red Wings

One of the best defenseman in hockey, Chelios was traded to the Detroit Red Wings after nine productive seasons in Chicago. He hoisted a Stanley Cup not long after and finished his 10-year Red Wings career with 152 points and a plus-158. 

-- Julius Peppers, Bears to Packers

After becoming a cap casualty with the Bears, Peppers chose greener pastures in Wisconsin. The defensive end signed with the Green Bay Packers, where he's tallied 25 sacks in three seasons. 

-- Dexter Fowler, Cubs to Cardinals

Well, at least he won a ring here. Fowler's surprise return to the North Side in 2016 helped boost the Cubs to their first World Series trophy in 108 years, but after winning, the center fielder rightly opted for the money. He signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal in St. Louis last offseason. 

Watch the video above as Siera Santos and Kelly Crull relive the heartbreak.