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The Bulls have officially started tanking. It’s about time

Chicago virtually shut down Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday. This is only the beginning.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Bulls managed an 18-point comeback against the Philadelphia 76ers Thursday night, but found a way to throw the game away on their very last possession. The untimely turnover leaned all the way into the narrative Chicago officials may dispute but fans will welcome: The Bulls are tanking.

No, Denzel Valentine didn’t turn the ball over on purpose. That’s blasphemous. But after Bulls general manager Jim Paxson addressed the media during the All-Star break, it’s clear that winning isn’t at the forefront of Chicago’s priority list. Instead, the Bulls will start evaluating the younger players on the roster.

“We’re going to start looking at blocks of games where we’ll be having a few guys who haven’t been playing much or at all have a significant role,” Paxson said, according to The Chicago Tribune’s K.C. Johnson. “The whole goal in our position is to evaluate what we have on this roster.

“It’s just the position we’re in as a young team, 20-37, with a lot of young guys and several who we haven’t really had the chance to see play much this year. For us to make the proper evaluation in terms of who fits us moving forward, this is something we have to do.”

Why would the Bulls tank now?

The Bulls were actually good for a hot second. They started the season with the worst record you may have ever seen — a whole 3-20 — and were god-awful after Bobby Portis punched Nikola Mirotic in the face, giving his teammate a concussion and breaking a few of his face bones.

But then Mirotic returned from injury and went absolutely bananas. Then Zach LaVine returned from his ACL injury last season, and the Bulls early struggles started to stabilize. They went on a seven-game winning streak once Niko returned and went on a 10-2 run through most of December.

The Bulls even went 5-6 right after that 10-2 run, and a 15-8 record is nothing to laugh at. Many of those victories were against bad opponents, but Chicago secured a few marquee wins against Indiana, Boston, Philadelphia and twice against Milwaukee.

But then things fell apart. The Bulls lost five in a row to end the month of January, and on Feb. 1 they traded Mirotic to the Pelicans. “For what?” you might ask: A top-five protected 2018 first-round pick and three players, including two (Tony Allen and Jameer Nelson) who were subsequently waived and one (Omer Asik) who has yet to play in a game.

Chicago has gone 2-5 since that trade, and all indications point towards a downward trend for the rest of the season.

Well, how do really you know the Bulls are tanking?

Losing teams do the same thing every year in order to, well, lose more games: They sit their best players and veterans to give their young players extended play time. Last season, the Lakers shut down Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, and the Suns shut down Tyson Chandler, Brandon Knight and a fully healthy Eric Bledsoe. The list goes on, and it goes on and on every season.

The Bulls are the first domino of many bottom-10 teams expected to shut their veteran and/or better players down for the rest of the year. And with a lowly 20-38 good for only the fourth-worst record in the East and ninth-worst in the league, losing only helps the Bulls’ climb the draft lottery odds for a better standing in the loaded 2018 NBA Draft class.

Chicago announced starting center Robin Lopez and veteran wing Justin Holiday will see a drastic reduction in playing time, according to K.C. Johnson. Lopez started every game up until the Bulls’ loss to the 76ers. They also announced Cameron Payne, who is returning from foot surgery, will absorb Jerian Grant’s minutes at the backup point guard position. Grant is averaging 8.5 points, five assists and just under a steal in 23 minutes off the bench per game.

Lopez told reporters he expects to play again this season and that while he’s on board for staying in Chicago beyond this season, he isn’t a proponent of the apparent tanking going on. “I’m not familiar with military artillery,” he joked with NBC Sports Chicago’s Vincent Goodwill when asked about tanking.

Let the tanking across the league begin

There are eight other teams below Chicago in the standings, and as it becomes more clear which teams have a legitimate shot at clawing into the playoff picture, franchises will start pressing turbo in the race to the bottom. This year’s draft class includes transcendent basketball talent, including the international phenom Luka Doncic, Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, Oklahoma’s Trae Young and Texas’ Mo Bamba.

The NBA also recently changed the draft lottery rules to more evenly spread out the odds at the No. 1 pick among losing teams. In short: This is the last season tanking will truly matter. It’s now or never.

The Bulls are just the first team to start the tank-off, but they’ll be joined by several others soon. It happens every season, and this year is no different. Just wait on it.