The Chicago Bulls already had been eliminated from postseason contention, which didn’t give them much time to process how this once promising season slipped away.
After fighting for their playoff lives for weeks, a Washington Wizards victory Friday night made the result of the Bulls’ 105-91 road loss to the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday afternoon inconsequential.
All that was left to fight for during the final two games of the season this weekend is the chance for better draft-lottery odds, especially considering the Bulls owe their first-round pick to the Orlando Magic if it’s outside the top four. Without much at stake, the Bulls sat Zach LaVine (knee), Tomáš Satoranský (ankle), Daniel Theis (hip) and Troy Brown (ankle)
“Definitely disappointing,” center Nikola Vučević said of being eliminated from playoff contention. “We really felt like we had a chance to get there and to get in the play-in and play for something further.”
Expectations rose after acquiring Vučević at the trade deadline. He gave the Bulls another All-Star to pair with LaVine, and the two figured to be natural complements, especially offensively.
What might sting most is that playoff spots were up for grabs in the Eastern Conference. The Atlanta Hawks fired their coach at the beginning of March and entered Saturday as the conference’s No. 4 seed. Former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau has resurrected the New York Knicks, along with some key contributions from Derrick Rose and even Taj Gibson, to secure a top-six seed in the conference. At the very least, a berth in the play-in tournament, for the Nos. 7-10 seeds in each conference, was not a very high bar to clear.
The reshuffled Bulls roster, however, ended up being thin and never really clicked.
They went 3-8 in their first 11 games with both All-Stars in the lineup. When LaVine tested positive for COVID-19 and entered the league’s health and safety protocols on April 15, it essentially was a nail in their season.
“There were a lot of things that happened along the way that didn’t help us,” Vučević said. “It’s hard to judge it now. There were definitely things we could have done better. When you make a trade midseason a lot of things change and sometimes it takes more time, and unfortunately we didn’t have that.
“It is disappointing we didn’t achieve our goal, so we have to be realistic and say we failed at that. But the only thing we can do is move forward and hopefully use that as motivation going into next year.”
It’s hard not to view the results this season as a disappointment, but the Bulls established some building blocks going forward. LaVine is one of the game’s elite scorers. Vučević is a reliable big and scoring option from all three levels on the court.
Rookie Patrick Williams still is young and needs to round out his game offensively, but a performance such as Saturday’s career-high 24 points reminds fans of his potential. After looking lost for long stretches earlier this season, Coby White has closed strong since returning to the starting lineup.
And after getting LaVine and Vučević back in the lineup and while fighting for their lives over the last 10 days, the Bulls started to look much more like the team they envisioned.
“We saw a lot of positives of what we can be,” Vučević said. “We just need that time to gel together and figure out how we can play — who we can be. Our identity, it just changed like overnight when the trade happened. We just need that time to kind of figure all that out.”
The Bulls, of course, didn’t have that time to save their season. They will wrap up the 2020-21 season Sunday night at home against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Coach Billy Donovan was not sure how the team would approach the final game but planned to talk with the front office to discuss whether the Bulls were going to give playing time to some players on the end of their bench, such as rookie guard Devon Dotson or Adam Mokoka.
But Vučević sounded open to the idea of playing in front of the home fans and to keep working on team chemistry heading into next year.
“We’re more focused on finishing the season off strong and building it up for next year,” he said.