The 2010-11 schedule has been released. It’s a doozy.
The Bulls must once again — and again and again and yet again — contend with their infamous November “circus trip” and a schedule loaded with back-to-back games. As K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune pointed out: “The Bulls are tied with the Bucks for the league lead with a whopping 23 sets of back-to-back games.”
Expectations must be high, because the Bulls will be on national television 27 times, including a Christmas day game against the Knicks in New York.
Here’s the month-by-month breakdown:
The Bulls open their season in Oklahoma City against a Thunder team starring a potential MVP candidate (Kevin Durant). Last season, the Thunder won 50 games in a tough Western Conference and gave the Lakers their second toughest fight en route to a second consecutive championship.
A few days later, the Bulls have their home opener against a Pistons squad featuring former Bull Ben Gordon and maybe-coulda-been-a-Bull Tracy McGrady. That one should be a shot selection masterpiece.
Things get ugly right off the bat: In 13 games, the Bulls face eight playoff teams and a Houston squad that should return to the playoffs if Yao Ming can stay healthy for a change. After a tough opening stretch in which they face the Trail Blazers (home), Celtics (road) and Nuggets (home), the Bulls close out the month with a brutal seven-game road trip that features two sets of back-to-backs and consecutive games against the Rockets, Spurs, Mavericks, Lakers, Suns and Nuggets.
As always, it’s going to be a struggle to escape November on the sunny side of .500.
The schedule doesn’t get better right away. The Bulls return home for one game to face the Orlando Magic before heading to Boston for a play date with the reigning Eastern Conference champs. Then it’s back home for games against the Rockets, Thunder and NBA champion Lakers (broken up by a road game against the LeBron-less Cavaliers).
This could be the point of the season where people start openly questioning how good this team really is, which seems like an annual rite of passage for the Bulls. Sweaty hands could be hovering over the Panic Button.
Fortunately, after the Lakers leave Chicago, the strength of schedule eases up. The Bulls get a stretch of nine out of 10 games against non-playoff teams: Timberwolves, Pacers, Raptors, Clippers, 76ers, Wizards, Knicks, Pistons, Bucks and Nets. Only four of those 10 games are on the road, and the only playoff team during that run (Milwaukee) has to come to the United Center.
Of course, the Knicks game is a Christmas day roadie…which, historically speaking, has gone pretty badly for the away team. Fortunately, the Knicks recently re-hired Isiah Thomas as a consultant. Still, let’s hope Santa doesn’t give Amar’e Stoudemire a post game.
This could be the month for a big push: Out of 16 games, the Bulls have only four road contests (at New Jersey, Charlotte, Indiana and Memphis). Technically speaking, the Bulls have nine games versus playoff teams, but two of those are against the Cavaliers. So…yeah. The others will be tough — Celtics, Heat, Bobcats (twice), Mavs, Bucks and Magic — but the rest of the schedule is littered with teams of questionable credibility: Raptors, Nets, Sixers, Pistons, Pacers (twice) and Grizzlies.
If the Bulls are going to be a top four seed in the East this season, they’re going to have to take advantage of having 12 out of 16 games at home in January. They should also floss between meals. It’s just a good habit to get into.
Things get ugly again in February: Eight of 11 games are on the road. In fact, the month opens with a five-game Western Conference road trip at Los Angeles (versus the Clippers), Golden State, Portland, Utah and New Orleans. The Bulls then play three out of four at home (Bobcats, Spurs, at Toronto, Heat) before closing out the month with road games at Milwaukee and Washington.
Even though “only” five of the 11 games are against playoff teams, the Hornets could definitely return to playoff contention this season. Have I mentioned I’m looking forward to seeing Derrick Rose square off with Chris Paul? Well, I am.
Unfortunately, the Bulls won’t earn much of a break for escaping February. Half of their 16 games are on the road. And check out their first seven games: at Atlanta, at Orlando, at Miami, Hornets, at Charlotte, Hawks, Jazz. The Bulls then get a softer four-game stretch (Wizards, at New Jersey, at Indiana, Kings) before an on-again, off-again stretch to close out the month (at Atlanta, Grizzlies, at Milwaukee, Sixers, at Minnesota).
This is when I assume (or just really, really hope) the Bulls will be pushing for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Fingerscrossed, people. Only three out of eight games are on the road, and only three games should be tough (Suns, Celtics, at Orlando). The rest of the teams the Bulls face will probably be prepping for their summer vacation (Pistons, Raptors, Cavaliers, Knicks and Nets).
On paper, this should be the best Bulls team since Michael Jordan retired the second time. But the schedule makers were not kind. The early season is front-loaded with road games, and the Bulls face more back-to-backs than anybody other than the Bucks. I really believe the Bulls could win 50-ish games, but they’re going to need to play really well in the early going to avoid falling into their annual sub-.500 hole.