Get all your news in one place.
100’s of premium titles.
One app.
Start reading
Chicago Sun-Times
Chicago Sun-Times
Joe Cowley

Bulls remain on the outside looking in, but the East can change quickly

All indications are that Milwaukee and Giannis are a step ahead of the Bulls in the East, but even the Bucks have some flaws that could be exposed this season. (Quinn Harris/AP)

The 2023 NBA offseason feels a bit incomplete.

That’s because it is.

Sure, Bulls players have started to trickle into town for the start of training camp in just more than two weeks, but there are still two major questions looming over the league — the Eastern Conference, specifically — that can shift the balance of power.

First, will the Heat and Trail Blazers start getting serious about trade talks involving Damian Lillard? Second, how much earth is James Harden willing to scorch in the wake of his demands that the 76ers trade him?

Both need to be decided soon and will have an impact on the landscape of the conference.

That’s the thing about the East: It’s a lot more fragile than it seems after the 2022-23 campaign came to an end with the Nuggets turning back an unlikely run by the Heat to hold up the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

On paper, there are at least six teams that can make a deep playoff run and another four that can sneak in if any of those six stumble.

On the outside looking in is a familiar place the Bulls have found themselves in with their current core of Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic and DeMar DeRozan. They’re not good enough to be a serious threat, but they know the teams in front of them have some warts.

Capitalizing on a better team’s flaws is really the only ‘‘in’’ for the Bulls because they have flaws, too.

A look at where the “Big 6” in the East stand now:

1. Bucks

They finished with the best record in the conference last season and were the No. 1 seed. But a quick playoff exit, thanks to Jimmy Butler and the Heat, has led to more questions than answers. Specifically, superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo wants management to show it is serious about sustained greatness before he re-signs.

The Bucks showed a commitment to the championship core by re-signing Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, adding Jae Crowder and Robin Lopez and keeping Giannis’ brother Thanasis in the mix.

If the Bucks exit the postseason before the conference finals in May, things really will get interesting.

2. Celtics

The Celtics gave Jaylen Brown a supermax contract and acquired often-injured big man Kristaps Porzingis in a trade that sent tough-minded Marcus Smart to the Wizards.

Brown and Jayson Tatum are still the one-two punch, but there was a certain toughness the Celtics had because of Smart’s presence.

This was a huge shake-up by executive Brad Stevens and one that has the potential to backfire because of Porzingis’ history of spending way too much time in the training room.

3. 76ers

Doc Rivers is out as coach and Nick Nurse is in. The 76ers might have been better served by hiring Dr. Phil, at least as an assistant.

Thanks to the Harden mess, all eyes will be on the City of Brotherly Love as training camp nears. Will Harden stay put? Will he be a distraction if he isn’t traded? What can the 76ers even get for him? How will MVP Joel Embiid react to all of this?

Embiid is locked in with a player option through the 2026-27 season, but this could go bad quickly, forcing him to demand a trade. The Sun-Times reported that Embiid’s relationship with Butler has remained strong, but keep an eye on the Knicks, too, and all the assets they have to move.

4. Cavaliers

They should have disposed of the Knicks in the first round of the playoffs last spring, but they found out in only five games that coaching and clutch play are key factors, even outweighing talent.

Keep an eye on Donovan Mitchell’s happiness, especially given that he holds a player option for the 2025-26 season.

The good news is that the front office won the offseason, adding three-point threats Max Strus and Georges Niang and a steal in the second round of the draft in Emoni Bates. It’s a well-constructed roster but one that could crumble with Mitchell being the key foundation pillar.

5. Heat

Executive Pat Riley cleared the decks for Lillard, allowing key components such as Strus and Gabe Vincent to walk in free agency and trading Victor Oladipo to the Thunder.

One problem: Still no Lillard.

If Riley can’t land Lillard from the Trail Blazers, the Heat still would be a tough matchup with Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry. But they wouldn’t be the championship team they might be with him.

6. Knicks

They continued building a very good roster by adding Donte DiVincenzo while sending out an unhappy Obi Toppin, but they still need a Batman in Gotham.

Madison Square Garden and star power should go hand-in-hand, but that hasn’t happened in recent years.

The good news is that the Knicks have the assets — both on their roster and with draft picks — to change that. But can they get it done in the next few seasons?

Sign up to read this article
Read news from 100’s of titles, curated specifically for you.
Already a member? Sign in here
Related Stories
Top stories on inkl right now
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Already a member? Sign in here
Our Picks
Fourteen days free
Download the app
One app. One membership.
100+ trusted global sources.