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The NBA Play-In Tournament is a tax on the middle-class Chicago Bulls

Will Gottlieb Avatar
April 6, 2023

Everybody loves the Play-In Tournament. Single-elimination basketball has brought verve to April hoops. It’s a chance to play meaningful basketball in an exciting new format and add a little variance to what teams end up in the NBA playoffs. It’s an accomplishment that some teams may feel proud of, and despite a 105-92 loss to the Bucks on Wednesday night on top of an otherwise disappointing season, the Bulls have secured their spot and given themselves a chance to make the playoffs.

But I have a contrarian take: The Play-In Tournament is a tax on the middle class.

The point of the Play-In tournament was to give teams in the middle something to fight for. Combined with flattened lottery odds, it was meant to reduce egregious tanking from those teams down the stretch of the season and provide fans with a hit of entertainment value for a fix of immediate gratification.

In reality, it actually means very little.

Even with the Play-In, tanking teams are still going to tank. The problem is that it disproportionately penalizes the mediocre team with no hopes of actually competing, but afraid to bottom out on the hamster wheel.

Playing for consolation prizes with no way up or down. Some may argue that tanking is “loser mentality.” I’d argue playing for the middle is.

If the NBA wants to curb tanking, they should flatten the lottery odds even more. De-incentivize the race to the bottom rather than encourage mediocrity. There’s a difference.

And that difference just so happens to prey on the Bulls’ desperation to top out as a good, not great, team in the short term at the expense of their future.

But the rules are the rules, and it’s the Bulls fault for cutting corners and falling into the rat trap.

In spite of that, the Bulls, who are now officially locked into the 10th seed in the East, can still improve the chances of retaining the top-four protected pick they owe the Magic in this summer’s NBA Draft. Not by much, but every percentage point counts when it comes to Victor Wembanyama.

After losing to the Bucks on Wednesday night, the Bulls are tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Dallas Mavericks at 38-42. They share a 10.3 percent chance of keeping their pick and a 2.2 percent chance of winning the Wembanyama sweepstakes.

Those odds are split if all three teams tie. But with a costly game against the Mavericks on deck Friday night, they have a chance to position themselves in the 10th seed. In which case, they would improve their odds of keeping their pick to 13.9 percent and 3 percent to land Wembanyama.

However, if they win and land in the 12th spot in the tankathon standings, they’ll have only a 7.2 percent chance to keep their pick and a 1.5 percent chance at Wembanyama.

It may not seem like a lot, but they nearly double their chances of retaining their pick in a loaded draft class. When it comes to a franchise-altering, generational talent, the Bulls need to maximize their chances, and that means holding at least DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and Alex Caruso out for the rest of the season.

The costs of this sort of maneuver are almost zero. They cannot affect their position in the Play-In Tournament or give themselves any additional help by winning. The only potential downside is giving Orlando the 10th pick in the draft compared to the 12th — an insignificant price to pay for any additional chance to retain their draft pick.

One reason not to tank these final two games is the rest vs. rust debate. It would be a sour note to finish the regular season with four-straight losses and with almost a week off between games for the Bulls core players. It may matter to a certain extent, but not more than the additional lottery ammunition they could accumulate.

The other reason not to tank would be the optics of delivering the 10th pick in the draft compared to the 12th. That might give the Magic a better chance at drafting an impact player, which, in retrospect, will alter the perception of the Vucevic trade for the worse. But that trade is done, and the results are what they are. The Bulls absolutely must move forward in a way that prioritizes improving their own future as opposed to improving the optics of a past deal.

Of course, all of this is moot if the Bulls reach the playoffs. In which case, they would not be in the draft lottery and would give up the 15th or 16th pick in the draft depending on who makes the Playoffs as the 8th seed in the Western Conference.

But the Bulls could control their own destiny.

Dallas’ remaining two games are against the Bulls and the Spurs. Oklahoma City’s are against the Jazz and the Grizzlies. The Mavericks and Thunder are tied and competing for the 10th seed in the West.

Meanwhile, the Bulls play the Mavericks on Friday and finish the season against the Pistons on Sunday. The Pistons have already locked up the best odds to win the lottery, so they may still be competing on the last day of the season.

In some ways, this season has been the worst-case scenario. The Bulls are caught in the middle with a very small chance of keeping their pick, and an even smaller chance of winning a playoff series — if they even make it there.

With their 42nd loss coming Wednesday night, they’ve clinched a losing season. The 10th-best team in the conference, who, even if they win two Play-In games, would face the Bucks in the first round — the very team that beat them last year.

The Bulls have had chances to bottom out throughout the course of this season and chosen not to. They’ve had chances to make roster moves over the past three transaction periods and chosen against it.

The Bulls have taken very little action towards improving their future since constructing the current core, but this could be their last chance to improve their outlook before a potential overhaul this summer. Landing a top-four pick would completely change their trajectory, and they have no excuses but to tank for it.

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