It has been Bulls guard Zach LaVine’s mantra for a few weeks now.
He either stopped making excuses sometime in March or simply had run out of them.
”We’ve done enough talking,” LaVine said several times in the weeks leading up to the Bulls’ first playoff appearance since 2017. ”It’s time to get it done now. Time to stop talking.”
Unfortunately for the Bulls, their play couldn’t match any talk on Sunday.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 27 points and 16 rebounds, and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks recovered after blowing a 16-point lead to beat the Bulls 93-86 in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
LaVine had never played in a postseason series, but he has been around long enough to know words mean very little in the NBA’s ”second season.” It’s claw and scratch for four victories to move on to the next series or plan a vacation. There’s no middle ground.
So while the Bulls have spent all week saying the right things about their first-round playoff series against the defending champion Bucks, it’s time for action. How the roster is constructed might depend on it.
Most prognosticators have the Bucks eliminating the Bulls, but there’s a bigger picture to consider.
Executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley didn’t build this roster to be mediocre. Even if the Bulls go out in the first round, how they look in doing so might carry weight in terms of the offseason decisions the front office has to make.
What if the Bulls, without injured guard Lonzo Ball, upset the Bucks or take them to a Game 7? What if the series goes six hard-fought games and the Bucks go on to repeat as champions?
In that case, the idea of going with the same players and running it back with a healthy Ball next season makes some sense. The Bulls would have to make some tweaks, for sure, but Karnisovas and Eversley would have a core they could sell to the fan base.
Then there’s the other side of the coin. What if the Bulls are swept or grab one victory at home but are hammered in the four other games?
The Bulls went 2-21 against opponents with winning percentages of .600 or higher during the regular season and slipped from first place in the Eastern Conference at the All-Star break to sixth at the end of the season. So if they aren’t competitive in the playoffs, Karnisovas wouldn’t be able to sell standing pat to the fan base.
An ugly end to this season would mean everything and everyone would have to be on the table.
As it stands, the Bulls have just more than $100 million in guaranteed salaries for next season, not including the big pay raise LaVine will be due in free agency. With a supermax deal all but out the window, LaVine will be looking at a five-year, $200 million contract from the Bulls or a four-year deal worth about $160 million elsewhere. Will the Bulls commit to that, knowing the team fizzled out when it mattered most?
There’s also center Nikola Vucevic and his contract, which expires after the 2022-23 season, to consider. Might the Bulls look to trade him this summer?
And don’t forget that guards Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu might be candidates for contract extensions.
So, yes, this is only a first-round playoff series. But it might mean much more for the outlook of the Bulls’ core.