When people talk about the chances for the Chicago Bulls this postseason, they often make the mistake of confusing “realistic” with “most probable” and, as a result, ignore that there is a range of possible outcomes. In the Bulls case there are at least six scenarios, depending on whether or not Derrick Rose returns.
To draw a parallel, when you roll a pair of dice there are 36 combinations which result in 11 possible numbers.
All numbers aren’t equally probable, though.
Six combinations can land you a seven, the most probable roll. Six and eight each own another five combinations. That means that 16 of the total combinations account for three sums. However, it is more “realistic” to say that you won’t roll one of those three numbers than that you will, because there are another 20 possible combinations that don’t result in one of those three sums.
The point here is that we can be overly simplistic in predicting outcomes, be it in dice or the NBA postseason. Something being probable doesn’t mean that it is guaranteed. Nor does something being improbable mean it is impossible. Only one combination lands you a roll of “two” but that doesn’t mean it’s unrealistic to roll a two.
Realistic is a range of possible events.
In the NBA postseason you never see things go exactly as expected. Some teams have better outcomes than anticipated and others have worse. Most teams do what is expected, no more or less, but in totality we see a range of results.
When viewing the Bulls postseason projections we need to consider the “snake-eyes” and the “boxcars” as well as the sevens. While these are less likely to occur, they aren’t impossible or unrealistic.
Worst-Case Scenario Without Derrick Rose
There is a distinct possibility that Rose will never return this season. He probably will come back, but part of the range is to consider what the possibilities are without Rose.
The Bulls shocked the NBA world, and temporarily climbed all the way to third in the East, before they hit the toughest parts of their schedule this season. Eleven of their last 14 opponents are currently winning teams destined for the postseason, and nine of those 11 opponents were faced on the road.
It’s little wonder that with a schedule like that they’ve struggled.
Still, to succeed in the postseason you need to beat playoff teams (duh), and this stretch shows that the Rose-less Bulls can struggle to do that.
The Bulls' insane schedule continues for 10 more games, with seven of their next 10 opponents boasting winning records. However, they close the season with only three of their last 12 opponents having winning records.
That should be sufficient to guarantee them a postseason berth at the very least, as they hold a 10-game lead over the Philadelphia 76ers.
Even if we assume that their remaining win total is equal to the number of losing teams they play, (offsetting potential losses to losing teams with wins over winning teams) that would give them 46 wins for the season. That would require Philadelphia to win out to pass the Bulls. There’s not a realistic scenario where they miss the postseason.
However, the Boston Celtics sit just two games behind the Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks are 3.5 games back. A slip to seventh or eighth is possible. Should that happen, the Bulls would be faced with a first-round series against the Miami Heat, and whomever ends up in second (most likely the Indiana Pacers or New York Knicks).
With the Bulls pressing hard, they could face injury issues and fatigue as they enter into the postseason.
Facing any of those teams without Rose is a daunting enough task, but doing so beat-up and fatigued would be almost impossible. An early trip home would be very much within the realm of possibility.
Worst-Case Scenario with Rose
This requires much less explanation. The worst-case scenario if Rose returns is he re-injures his knee.
That’s the greatest fear of Tom Thibodeau, Derrick Rose, all his teammates, Jerry Reinsdorf, Adidas, Gar Forman, John Paxson and every single Bulls fan in the world.
That’s why the Bulls are being extremely cautious about when he returns. While this possibility is not likely, it remains a possibility.
Middle-Case Scenario Without Rose
While the Bulls have struggled against some postseason teams, they’ve also been without a plethora of other players. Kirk Hinrich has been in and out of the lineup, as has Richard Hamilton. Joakim Noah missed time with a foot injury. Luol Deng was out for a span with a hamstring pull. Carlos Boozer missed games. Now Taj Gibson has a sprained ACL.
Their recent struggles aren’t quite so ominous when you consider that they’ve been without Rose and at least one other starter in 35 of their 60 games thus far. While Kirk Hinrich is no Derrick Rose, when he’s played the Bulls are 29-15. When the Bulls have had their preferred starting lineup sans Rose they are 17-8.
The point is that even without Rose, the Bulls are a team that can win if they are healthy. Their recent struggles can be attributed to their injuries as much as their tough scheduling—though the tandem is lethal.
Added to injuries and scheduling are the litany of questions concerning when Rose’s return will be.
In the middle-case scenario, the Bulls get healthy and rested as a result of the closing part of their schedule being soft. Furthermore, they hold on to the fourth or fifth seed.
Facing what would likely be the Brooklyn Nets or Atlanta Hawks, the Bulls would have a better-than-decent chance of working their way to the second round. However, facing the Miami Heat in the second round, they would have little chance without Rose.
In all likelihood, they get sent home packing in the second round.
Middle-Case Scenario with Rose
If Rose returns in the next five games, then Chicago would still have Rose for the last quarter of the season. That’s just enough time for him to get into something resembling game shape.
He won’t be able to shake off all the rust, and he won’t be back to MVP form, but he’ll be back to something resembling himself, and that should be enough to push the Bulls into the fourth seed. There they would have a first-round series against the Hawks or Nets, which they should win, especially with the home-court advantage.
In the second round they would face the Heat. Probably the only difference between the with and without Rose scenarios is how much fight they are able to give the Heat. With him it becomes a competitive series, as opposed to a sweep.
The bottom line here is that as far as “sevens,” go the most likely scenario is the Bulls lose in the second round to the Heat.
Best-Case Scenario Without Rose
The best the Bulls could do without Rose would actually involve them falling to the sixth or seventh seed in the playoffs.
Why is worse better here?
Because, if they can beat the New York Knicks (whom they’ve beaten thrice this season) in the first round, their path to the conference finals would go through Indiana and not Miami.
Or, perhaps the Boston Celtics or Brooklyn Nets play the Pacers in the first round and get the upset win. Between seeds two through seven, anything is possible. Getting in that side of the bracket makes for a better second-round series.
The best-case scenario is that the Bulls just draw a lucky hand and face a beatable opponent in the second round rather than the Miami Heat, and work their way into the Eastern Conference Finals, similar to the way the Celtics found their way last year.
It is unlikely, but it's within a reasonable realm of possibility.
Best-Case Scenario with Rose
If Derrick Rose does indeed come back, and if he is “110 percent” when he does, it would just be a matter of shaking off rust and getting back into game shape.
If Rose is close to his MVP form, there will be a number of things that happen.
First, the entire team will be hugely energized heading into the postseason. It will be the inverse of what happened last year when he went down and his teammates were deflated. With Rose running the show, they would be inspired.
Second, that infusion, along with the actual play of Derrick Rose, would lead to a strong finish, perhaps enough to climb into the division lead, or failing that, the third seed.
Third, by virtue of Rose being the best offensive player, the impact on the offense would be enormous. Rather than role players trying to be go-to players, Boozer, Noah and Deng would become far more efficient.
Fourth, since the Bulls are practicing with Kirk Hinrich at shooting guard, I believe he would slide over and the starting lineup would be Rose, Hinrich, Deng, Boozer and Noah, which would give Chicago its best starting lineup in the Tom Thibodeau era.
Finally, with Hinrich, Marco Belinelli and Jimmy Butler the Bulls have more offense at shooting guard than they have had in the past. While Kyle Korver was terrific at knocking down the three, he didn’t have much ability to create shots.
Granted, the Bulls offense has struggled this year without a catalyst. But these three are better as second options. They can be successful against secondary defenders when they aren’t being double-teamed.
There’s been an assumption that Rose will struggle to find chemistry with the new guys, but with the extensive practice time they’ve had, perhaps that’s not the case.
The best-case scenario is that the plan comes together, and the Bulls coast through the first two rounds, where they face a hard-fought series with the Miami Heat, and perhaps even win. Then, depending on who comes out of the West, who knows what could happen?
The Bulls might not have a great chance to win a title this year, but it is a chance.