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Life is a lottery in NBA 'Least'

Updated: 2014-01-09 07:11
By Associated Press in Chicago ( China Daily)

The odds that the Chicago Bulls would be trading one of their top players seemed like a long shot when the season began.

Then they lost Derrick Rose to another knee injury. Now, Luol Deng is gone after being dealt to Cleveland and it sure looks like the Bulls are holding a lottery ticket in the next NBA draft.

But there is no guarantee they will get there, given the sorry state of the NBA's Eastern Conference.

With only three teams holding winning records after Tuesday's games, perennial losers and underachievers still have hopes of making a playoff run even though the notion of tanking is at full throttle.

Those that would just as soon fall into the lottery in a year when the draft could be loaded with talented players might have a tough time. Indiana (28-6) and Miami (27-8) are clearly the cream of the conference. After that, it's wide open.

The only other team with a non-losing record after Tuesday's games was Atlanta (18-17).

"It's unusual that there are so many teams under .500," said John Paxson, the Bulls executive vice-president of basketball operations.

"It's also unusual there have been a lot of significant injuries. Brooklyn went out and Brook Lopez goes out and breaks his (right foot). There's been a lot of that going on. The East is still an open deal. With our guys being competitive, they'll play hard."

When Rose tore the meniscus in his right knee in November after sitting out last season recuperating from a torn ACL in his left knee, it just about dashed any hopes the Bulls (15-18) had of surpassing LeBron James and the defending champion Heat in the East.

And when Deng declined a contract extension offer in recent days, Paxson said it was time to make a move rather than risk losing him as a free agent after the season.

The Bulls made the trade even though they were sixth in the Eastern Conference and in the running for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

But in the big picture, what would that accomplish for Chicago, which had its hopes set on challenging for a championship?

For teams such as Washington and Charlotte, a postseason appearance could be a huge boost. And for Cleveland, which is trying to avoid the lottery after picking first in the NBA draft last year, the Deng trade could be fuel for a turnaround after a 12-23 start.

Despite their sorry record, the Cavaliers are currently only two games out of the No 8 spot in the playoffs.

"If we keep getting better as we are, being in the East, you never feel like you're out of it," Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said.

A team such as the New York Knicks (12-22) could try to hang on in hopes of getting hot in the playoffs rather than dismantling its roster.

Maybe Atlanta becomes a buyer rather than a seller. The possibilities seem endless - in part because the conference is struggling.

"It's a phenomenon this year in the Eastern Conference," said Dwane Casey, coach of the Toronto Raptors, which lead the Atlantic Division despite having just a 16-17 record.

"I don't think it's a negative. I think it's just you have a different group of teams having different missions, trying to find their way, trying to find a rhythm - trying to find whatever it is - in the same season. It's unusual."

Paxson said the deal with Cleveland wasn't a white flag trade, even if the Bulls made it with an eye on the future.

The Bulls acquired draft pick picks along with center Andrew Bynum, who was waived before Tuesday's deadline. That meant they would not be on the hook for the remaining $6 million on the two-year, $24 million contract Bynum signed with the Cavaliers in July.

Paxson said the money the Bulls save in salaries and luxury tax will be "put back into this basketball team".

The Bulls could have the flexibility to be active in free agency and bring in Spanish star Nikola Mirotic, whose rights they acquired in a 2011 NBA draft day trade - particularly if they amnesty Carlos Boozer.

And Paxson still sees playoff potential with a roster that includes Noah, Boozer, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler along with veterans Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy Jr.

And with the room to make some moves before next season, not to mention the return of Rose, he insists the Bulls' future is far from dim.

(China Daily 01/09/2014 page23)