Where do Bulls rank in East following Lillard to Bucks news?

Alex Caruso. DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic. Chicago Bulls (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Alex Caruso. DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic. Chicago Bulls (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) /

Anytime the competition makes a big move to get a leg up, you hate to see it. Last year, it was the Cavaliers going out to land Donovan Mitchell that had me particularly worried for the Chicago Bulls standing in the Central Division. Those fears proved to be warranted, as Cleveland would leap to a 51-31 record and finished an entire 11 games above the Bulls.

This time, things may be even worse.

That’s because the Bucks have stolen the story of the summer by sneaking in last-second to steal Damian Lillard away in a blockbuster trade that shocked the NBA world. This already elite Bucks roster looks more formidable than ever and should impose their will as the top dog in the Eastern Conference. But if the Bucks are the East’s new alpha, who else is running with the pack, and who is falling behind?

Things are looking grim for the Bulls in the East following Milwaukee’s decision to trade for Damian Lillard.

Tier 1) Clear-Cut Contenders

  • Milwaukee Bucks
  • Boston Celtics
  • Philadelphia 76ers

If you want to be taken seriously as a true title favorite in today’s NBA, you’re going to need a true superstar talent on the roster who can lead your team to the promised land. When discussing the best of the best in the East, only three teams in the conference meet this criteria. Joel Embiid and Jayson Tatum will ensure the 76ers and Celtics remain competitive as long as they’re healthy, but the two-man duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard has to put Milwaukee in the driver’s seat to start the year off.

Tier 2) Dark Horses

  • Cleveland Cavaliers
  • New York Knicks
  • Atlanta Hawks

These next three teams each lack the superstar necessary to reach the top tier but are also all still definitively ahead of the Bulls at this moment in time. The Cavaliers, Knicks, and Hawks each qualified for the postseason and proved to have a strong mix of experienced veterans and budding young talent. What separates these teams from the Bulls is how they’ve continued to be aggressive in pursuing additional talent such as Donovan Mitchell, Jalen Brunson, and Dejounte Murray, while Chicago has instead opted to stand pat and not make any major improvements over the last two years.

Tier 3) The Middle of the Pack

  • Miami Heat
  • Chicago Bulls
  • Indiana Pacers
  • Brooklyn Nets
  • Toronto Raptors

This tier is in my opinion, the most interesting and also the most challenging to define. On one hand, we have solid but not great teams in Chicago and Toronto, and on the other, we have quickly up-and-coming rosters like Indiana and Brooklyn. The one real outlier here is the Heat, who after winning the Eastern Conference just a few months ago, will struggle to overcome the losses of Max Strus and Gabe Vincent while also whiffing in the Damian Lillard sweepstakes.

Each of these teams could bump up to the second tier if they get hot or make any moves to improve but are also all volatile enough to be considering a firesale if things aren’t going their way ahead of the trade deadline. To me, this is the NBA’s version of no man’s land, and it’s not a place the Bulls should be willing to stick around in for much longer.

Tier 4) Tanking Teams

  • Orlando Magic
  • Detroit Pistons
  • Charlotte Hornets
  • Washington Wizards

All in all, I’d say it’s a good thing that we can expect a bare minimum of 11 out of 15 Eastern teams to actively try to win this season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Orlando or Detroit jump up a tier either, depending on the strides their impressive young cores take this summer. The Hornets and Wizards will undoubtedly be jostling for position in the draft lottery by the end of the year, but neither are as completely listless as the bottom-rung teams we’ll see in the West this year.

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