Bulls beat Charlotte as All-Stars return, but was it really worth it?Joe Cowleyon May 7, 2021 at 2:49 am

The win over the Hornets, to go along with the Toronto loss to Washington, still kept the Bulls four games back in the chase for a final play-in spot, but could be doing harm to the dwindling lottery odds they have left.

Much of the focus from the new Bulls regime at the start of this season was getting the likes of a Zach LaVine into position to play a “meaningful game.’’

They continued to give themselves that chance on Thursday, after getting a few All-Stars back in the starting lineup and then hammering the Hornets in Charlotte 120-99.

Center Nikola Vucevic returned from a sore hip to score 29 points and grab 14 rebounds, while LaVine played his first game since being sidelined with a positive coronavirus, scoring 13 in 27 minutes of work.

With Washington beating Toronto in overtime, the Bulls stayed within four games of the Wizards for that final play-in spot in the Eastern Conference, leaving the remaining six games meaningful to a certain extent.

The problem, however, is the most meaningful game could be one the Bulls want LaVine and Vucevic nowhere near.

Next Thursday, the Bulls host Toronto in what could be two disappointing teams wrapping up the regular season. At least on the surface.

What’s really on the line, however, is about 5%.

Following Thursday, the two teams are now separated by just a half game, with the Bulls sitting in the 11th seed in the East and the Raptors 12th. In lottery land, however, that puts the Bulls at No. 8 and the Raptors now at No. 7 in the loss to the Wizards.

Big deal?

It is if you no longer have a first round pick unless you land in the top four and that pick is protected.

That’s the situation the Bulls find themselves in with just six games left to play. If lottery luck gives them the cold shoulder on June 22, and they land five or higher that 2021 pick goes to Orlando as part of the Nikola Vucevic deal.

The No. 7 team has a 31.9% chance of landing in the top four, while it drops to 26.3% for the No. 8 team. When there’s two talented point guards like a Cade Cunningham and Jalen Suggs expected to go in that top four, every percentage point counts.

According to Bulls coach Billy Donovan, there have been no discussions with executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas about sitting players as of yet, but could that change by next week?

After all, the difference between missing the playoffs and still having a top four pick, as well as an All-Star in Vucevic, compared to missing the playoffs without a first-round addition from a very talented draft class is night and day.

The Bulls would only have a 7.5% chance of landing No. 1 if they could regain that seven spot, but this is an organization that defied lottery odds before, hitting on a 1.7% in 2008, landing Derrick Rose.

So while it looks like the numbers are stacked against them no matter where they finish, this is still about playing the odds.

Now try selling that to the current Bulls players, especially LaVine, after he missed 11 games in the NBA health and safety protocol.

“I mean, I’m not that type of guy,’’ LaVine said, when asked about being shutdown by his bosses at some point. “Obviously, if that conversation comes up, it won’t be coming from me.

“If that conversation comes up, it may or may not, but for me I want to go out there and play.’’

The Hornets found that out from both LaVine and Vucevic, as the one-two punch did their damage in a 34-point first quarter and a 37-point third quarter.

According to Vucevic, however, LaVine’s presence was the key.

“It was huge,’’ the big man said after the game. “Obviously we’re a much different team with Zach out there, obviously a much better team with him in the lineup.’’

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