CHICAGO (AP) — When the season began, the odds that the Chicago Bulls would trade one of their top players seemed about as long as a full-court shot.
Then they lost Derrick Rose to another knee injury. Now All-Star Luol Deng is gone, dealt to Cleveland early Tuesday, and it sure looks like the Bulls are on their way to an NBA lottery ticket.
One thing, though.
There is no guarantee they will get there given the sorry state of the Eastern Conference. With only three teams holding winning records entering 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 in the NBA.
Those that would just as soon fall into the lottery in a year when the draft could be loaded might have a tough time. Indiana (27-6) and Miami (26-8) are clearly the cream of the conference. After that, it's wide open.
The only other teams with non-losing records after Monday's games: Atlanta (18-17) and Toronto (16-16).
"It's unusual that there are so many teams under .500," Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said. "It's also unusual that 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 at Portland in November after sitting out last season recuperating from a torn ACL in his left knee, it just about dashed any hopes the Bulls 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 homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
But in the big picture, what would that accomplish for Chicago? On the other hand, 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 last year, the Deng trade could be fuel for a turnaround after an 11-23 start.
"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 New York that was 11-22 despite a roster that looked impressive on paper with Carmelo Anthony leading the way could try to hang on in hopes of getting hot in the playoffs rather than dismantle the roster.
Maybe Atlanta becomes a buyer rather than a seller. The possibilities seem endless in part because the conference is struggling.