NBA Power Rankings Week 17: Squandering An Opportunity In Chicago

The Chicago Bulls weren’t “supposed” to make the playoffs in 2019-20, even after making tangible improvements in the offseason. Chicago’s projected win total was set in the low 30’s in Las Vegas and, even with some trendy love from those paying close attention to the league, the Bulls were seen as something of a long-shot to crash the postseason party. Still, the struggles of the Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic could have theoretically opened the door for the Bulls and, simply put, they haven’t walked through it.

Chicago ended the first “half” of the season with a six-game losing streak before the All-Star break and, for all intents and purposes, that likely ended any chance at a playoff push. The Bulls aren’t buried statistically but, with the two teams ahead of them seemingly entrenched, a long shot became a prayer. It didn’t have to be like this, however, but the Bulls have struggled in a mighty way, even with challenging circumstances.

The Bulls have an unsightly 19-36 overall record, but in examining their point differential, Chicago’s record should be closer to 22-33. That may seem small but if the team had 22 wins they’d have more than a fighting chance for playing this postseason. Some of that can be tied to a hideous performance in late-game situations, with the Bulls sporting a -16.1 net rating in spots that NBA.com describes as “clutch.”

Chicago has also battled injuries throughout the season, including a key one at an inopportune time. Otto Porter Jr. has been a complete non-factor, missing 46 games, and other supporting pieces like Denzel Valentine have been in and out of the lineup. The big domino is Wendell Carter Jr., though, and a closer look at the numbers reflects his impact.

On Dec. 28, the Bulls were 13-20 and, while that wasn’t ideal, the team’s net rating (-0.4) was closer to that of a .500 team. In fact, the Bulls were only 1.5 games out of the playoffs and, considering what would happen with the Magic and Nets, they would’ve very much been a factor with regard to the playoff race. Since then, however, Chicago is just 6-16 and the team’s net rating took a nosedive to -7.1, placing the team in the bottom five of the NBA during that time period.

That wasn’t fully tied to Carter but, in short, it is hard to ignore that the team’s best center was sidelined for 18 of those 22 games. For the full season, the Bulls have a +1.4 net rating when Carter plays (the best on the team) and a -5.9 net rating when he sits. Chicago wouldn’t refer to Carter as its best player but, given what has transpired without him, it might’ve been fair to put him alongside Zach LaVine in the discussion about which players are the most important to their success.

LaVine should be credited with carrying an offense that is hapless when he sits, averaging 25.3 points per game on 57.3 percent true shooting. That type of efficient offense is the outlier on this team and, when LaVine sits, the team craters to a hideous offensive rating of 98.2 points per 100 possessions. Still, the defense is actively worse than LaVine plays, with a team-worst 110.6 points per 100 possessions allowed when the star guard is on the floor. Ultimately, it is a tough balance to strike, with Chicago’s offense performing at legitimately impressive levels when he is off the court but unable to function at all on the other end.

The Bulls have been unlucky with injuries and that matters. They’ve also been unlucky, at least to some degree, when the game is on the line this season. In totality, though, Chicago shot itself in the foot with bizarre usage and challenging roster construction.

As the stretch run arrives, national observers likely won’t be paying close attention to the Bulls, and it is tough to blame them. This could’ve been a pretty interesting season in Chicago, though, and it just didn’t materialize.

Where do the Bulls fall in this week’s DIME power rankings? Let’s explore.

1. Milwaukee Bucks (46-8, Last week — 1st)

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The Bucks did lose their last game before the break but it came by only seven points in a road game without Giannis Antetokounmpo. Milwaukee was 14-1 in the 15 games prior to that, so we’ll let it slide this time. It helps to be 46-8.

2. Los Angeles Lakers (41-12, Last week — 4th)

Team LeBron won the All-Star Game and LeBron’s team won the last three games before the All-Star break. The Lakers have a pretty sizable lead (four games) on the field in the West and, while there are things to nitpick, Los Angeles is in a pretty fantastic position in mid-February.

3. Boston Celtics (38-16, Last week — 3rd)

The Celtics are 11-2 in their last 13 games, with the only losses coming on the road against good competition. That’s not a bad way to enter the hiatus, especially with Boston winning their final pre-break game against the Clippers in double overtime.

4. Toronto Raptors (40-15, Last week — 2nd)

Toronto finally lost a basketball game just before the break, losing by ten points in Brooklyn. There is no great shame in that result, and even less when considering that the Raptors won 15 (yes, 15) consecutive games before that. What a run.

5. Utah Jazz (36-18, Last week — 7th)

It’s been a bit of a wild ride for the Jazz, to the point where the “streaky” label might fit in this case. Utah won four consecutive games in late January, then lost five in a row… before winning four more games in a row before the All-Star break. The wins came against quality competition, too, and the Jazz are in good shape for home court in the first round, two games up on Houston.

6. Philadelphia 76ers (34-21, Last week — 9th)

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It is hardly groundbreaking to suggest that the Sixers are a baffling team. That continued before the break, with Philadelphia winning three straight after a four-game losing streak. In on-brand fashion, the wins came at home and the losses came on the road. Brett Brown’s team is now 25-2 at home and 9-19 on the road. Bizarre is a good word for it.

7. L.A. Clippers (37-18, Last week — 6th)

The Clippers are better than their record, and that is reflected in a 31-11 mark when Kawhi Leonard is in uniform. The All-Star break just happens to arrive after L.A. lost three out of four games, but they’re going to be fine.

8. Denver Nuggets (38-17, Last week — 5th)

Denver sits in the No. 2 spot in the West. That is obviously a positive, though the Nuggets are just 8th in net rating. Everyone knows Denver is good. It’s a matter of degrees on this one.

9. Houston Rockets (34-20, Last week — 11th)

Daryl Morey and company are going even further all-in on the “no center” movement, adding DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Green in the buyout market. If nothing else, this is going to be incredibly interesting to monitor, and it helps that Russell Westbrook is playing his best basketball in quite some time.

10. Oklahoma City Thunder (33-22, Last week — 10th)

After back-to-back home losses, the Thunder really needed a win before the break and they got it. OKC went into New Orleans and beat a good Pelicans team, climbing to 33-22 on the season. It is really wild to consider that the Thunder are as good as they are, especially when you remember they are technically rebuilding on the fly.

11. Dallas Mavericks (33-22, Last week — 12th)

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Luka Doncic is back and the Mavericks are pretty darn good when he plays. They are 28-16 when he suits up and 5-6 when he doesn’t. It isn’t totally that simple, but it makes sense.

12. Miami Heat (35-19, Last week — 8th)

Everything isn’t rosy in Miami right now, even after two victories on All-Star Saturday night. The Heat are 4-6 in the last 10 and that includes four losses in the last five games. Fortunately, Miami gets to face Atlanta, Cleveland (twice) and Minnesota when the schedule begins again later this week.

13. Memphis Grizzlies (28-26, Last week — 13th)

Memphis is still scorching. The tier above this is pretty tough to crack, but the Grizzlies are 15-4 in the last 19 games. That is impressive under any circumstances.

14. Brooklyn Nets (25-28, Last week — 16th)

Brooklyn’s been frustrating this season, but they’ve still won 7 of the last 10. All told, the Nets are probably better than their record indicates, even if that isn’t overly inspiring.

15. Indiana Pacers (32-23, Last week — 17th)

Nate McMillan’s bunch caught a gift in the final game before the All-Star break, with a Giannis-less Bucks team coming to town. That wasn’t a sure-fire win, though, and the Pacers did what they needed to do in order to end their losing skid. Indiana still has issues, but that one was big.

16. New Orleans Pelicans (23-32, Last week — 15th)

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Since Dec. 18, the Pelicans are 17-10 and one of the ten best teams in the NBA according to net rating. They started from a horrible 6-22 baseline, but that shouldn’t scare anyone from talking about New Orleans as if it is a good basketball team. It is, and the Pels have nationally televised road games against the Blazers and Lakers within the next week.

17. Portland Trail Blazers (25-31, Last week — 14th)

The Blazers are still in decent shape, but they’ve lost four of six and Damian Lillard needs to get back in a hurry from his groin injury. Portland does open with three straight home games after the break, but two of them are actual tests against the Pelicans and Celtics.

18. Orlando Magic (24-31, Last week — 20th)

It would be too aggressive to suggest that we learned anything about the Magic in the final two games this week. Orlando simply did what they had to do in beating the Hawks and Pistons at home. But, hey, they did it and it keeps them solidly in the eighth spot in the East.

19. San Antonio Spurs (23-31, Last week — 19th)

San Antonio badly needed a win in their final game before the break and they managed to go into OKC and steal one on the second night of a back-to-back. The Spurs still have tough sledding ahead, but they aren’t dead yet.

20. Washington Wizards (20-33, Last week — 21st)

The schedule was exceptionally favorable for the Wizards in early February but, to their credit, they took full advantage. Washington is 5-2 in the last seven games and they even played a little bit of defense during that stretch.

21. Sacramento Kings (21-33, Last week — 18th)

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It’s probably too little, too late but the Kings are 6-4 in the last ten games. Considering all four losses came against (very) good teams, it would be tough to ask for much more from Sacramento lately.

22. Phoenix Suns (22-33, Last week — 22nd)

If the Suns were in the East, they’d be two games out of the playoffs and sitting in ninth place. In the West, Phoenix is 6.5 games out of the playoffs and sitting in 12th position. Them’s the breaks.

23. Charlotte Hornets (18-36, Last week — 25th)

Charlotte was brutal for a long stretch, losing 13 out of 14 games. The Hornets did finish their pre-break run with back-to-back road wins, though, and that certainly made things easier for the team during their time off.

24. Atlanta Hawks (15-41, Last week — 23rd)

The Hawks are a rare case in that they actively improved their roster at the trade deadline despite being out of the playoff race. Clint Capela isn’t playing yet but, even if they take their time in bringing him along, Atlanta is already playing better with a 7-9 mark in the last 16 games. As a fun fact, the Hawks have the easiest remaining schedule in the NBA.

25. New York Knicks (17-38, Last week — 24th)

Technically, the Knicks came into the break riding a 4-2 streak. It didn’t necessarily feel as positive after back-to-back losses to Atlanta and Washington, especially when the Wizards game was an 18-point home defeat.

26. Chicago Bulls (19-36, Last week — 26th)

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The Bulls open with four straight home games after the break. Maybe they can make up some ground and find some optimism.

27. Detroit Pistons (19-38, Last week — 27th)

Detroit is playing out the string, losing 10 of the last 12 games as the full-scale rebuild arrives. The Pistons do have some intrigue with Christian Wood playing so well, though, as the talented big man is averaging 16.7 points and 7.1 rebounds in the last 13 games.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves (16-37, Last week — 29th)

The Wolves shouldn’t be this bad, even with well-documented roster turnover. Minnesota is still only 1-15 in their last 16 games, though, and the results have to matter, even if they have a real, live star in Karl-Anthony Towns. The stretch run of the season will officially be about trying to build some momentum towards next year with D’Angelo Russell.

29. Cleveland Cavaliers (14-40, Last week — 30th)

On the bright side, Cleveland won their last game by 22 points. Otherwise, the Cavs have coaching turmoil and a 4-18 record in the last 22 games. That is less fantastic.

30. Golden State Warriors (12-43, Last week — 28th)

It could be argued that the Warriors aren’t actually playing the worst basketball in the NBA right now. With that said, Golden State has lost four in a row and they still have the worst record in the league by 2.5 games. That will earn you the basement slot.