Through seven preseason games, the Bulls have earned a pretty sweet record of 5-2. But there are problems. The main problem is that Derrick Rose injured his right ankle during the first preseason game and it hasn’t fully healed. He’ll almost certainly sit out of Friday’s final preseason game against the Wizards, and he could even miss the regular season opener against the Spurs. Yesterday, Rose ran during practice for the first time since the injury occurred. That’s a promising sign, but the fact remains that Derrick hasn’t gotten the chance to get accustomed to his team and teammates in the new post-Gordon era.
Beyond Rose, projected starters Tyrus Thomas (hip injury) and John Salmons (personal reasons) missed a clump of practices and preseason games. And, of course, Tyrus is already grumpy about Taj Gibson starting over him at power forward in the final preseason game. Preseason is supposed to be a tune-up, where coaches begin to establish a set rotation and players dribble, shoot and run themselves into game shape. That hasn’t worked out very well for the Bulls.
Is it a long-term problem? No. The necessary continuity hopefully should be established in two or three weeks. Unfortunately, that’s going to put the Bulls a step or two behind their NBA peers. This is especially dire considering how badly the Bulls’ need to come out of the gates strong. But history and circumstances are against them.
Over the past five seasons, the Bulls have been a second half of the season team. The numbers speak for themselves:
If we throw out the 2007-08 season — during which the team either quit or simply fell apart completely — the most recent Bulls squads have gone 101-107 (48 percent) before the All-Star break and 77-43 (64 percent) after it. There’s a pretty wide gulf between those winning percentages.
So what’s the deal? The Bulls always have a brutal first-half schedule, which typically is due to events taking place at the United Center. This forces the team into extended road swings. Take this season’s schedule for instance. The Bulls play 10 of their first 15 games on the road and face 10 playoff teams (Spurs, Celtics, Heat, Cavaliers, Sixers, Lakers, Blazers, Jazz and the Nuggets twice). With Rose still acclimating, with Luol Deng still putting his game back together, with Del Negro still working on the rotation, with the team still figuring out how to fill the Ben Gordon scoring gap…it’s virtually inconceivable that the Bulls will enter December with anything other than a sub-.500 record.
Deng knows this, although he thinks the Bulls have the personnel necessary to potentially avoid the annual rocky start: “We could lose a bunch of games early. But you can always tell how you’re going to be by the way you play. How we approach games and the chemistry of the team and how unselfish we are can tell a lot. We’ve started slowly before. I think we have the right mix of people to succeed.”
The Bulls have a lot of home games in December, but eight of their 15 games are against playoff teams (Cavs, Celtics, Lakers, Hornets and twice each against the Pistons and Hawks). In January, they play another 10 of 15 games on the road, including a seven-game Western Conference road trip to finish up the month (at Golden State, the L.A. Clippers, Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and New Orleans). Things start to ease up by February, but by then it’s possible — even likely — that the Bulls will be digging their way out of a hole and scrambling to get back into the playoff race. Oh, and let’s not forget that Chicago has a league-high 22 sets of back-to-back games.
It’s a bummer. The Bulls have solid talent this year. Not championship-caliber, of course, but on paper I think this team could win 45-ish games and challenge for the fourth seed in the East. But a slow, if not downright awful start is almost a sure thing. Which means before the All-Star break everybody will be wondering what’s wrong with the Bulls and talking about how much of a disappointment they are. People will question the talent and desire of the existing players, lament the exit of Ben Gordon and cry for a blockbuster trade for someone like Carlos Boozer or Chris Bosh. After the All-Star break the big story will be the team’s “resurgence” and amazing “comeback” in the playoff race.
Note: Eight of the Bulls last 11 games are against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season…so don’t be amazed when the Bulls finish strong.