Upon close examination of the Bulls’ 2013-14 regular-season schedule, the team’s slate actually appears more favorable than in recent campaigns.
Even with all of their marquee matchups — 33 games on national television, including the contests on NBA TV — there aren’t many overly arduous road trips or too many stretches where the Bulls take on several of their fellow league heavyweights in consecutive outings, though Tom Thibodeau would probably beg to differ.
Sure, they start out the season with a highly-anticipated game against the rival Miami Heat, the defending champions, and the home opener is against another long-time foe, the New York Knicks. But annual excursions, such as the November “Circus Trip” and February’s “Ice Capades Trip,” for which the Bulls and Blackhawks must clear out of the United Center, don’t seem to be quite as daunting as usual, at least on paper.
The former, a six-game trip, begins in high-altitude Denver on Nov. 21, followed by a matchup in Portland the following evening. Both the Nuggets and Trail Blazers are two young teams that have given the Bulls problems on the road in recent years, but neither can be considered one of the NBA’s juggernauts. After a day of rest, they’re scheduled to take on the Clippers, who can be now looked at as one of the league’s contenders, but the final game on out West, in Utah, even on the second night of a back-to-back, potentially allows for a momentary chance for the Bulls to feast upon an inexperienced squad with little firepower on its roster, provided there’s no slippage. The jaunt ends back in the Midwest, and though both Detroit and Cleveland made significant personnel improvements, out of Central Division pride, both contests will be viewed as opportunities to assert dominance.
The Bulls’ other six-game road swing starts on Jan. 29 with a doozy against last season’s Western Conference finalists, the Spurs. After leaving San Antonio, however, a trio of games in New Orleans, Phoenix and Sacramento offers a chance to pad the Bulls’ win-column total prior to facing an upgraded Golden State team in Oakland, where they’ve had their struggles. The trip ends in Los Angeles against the Lakers, who aren’t nearly as formidable as they’ve been in the past.
Beyond their two major road trips, the Bulls have 16 sets of back-to-back games on the schedule, a decrease from recent years. Again, just on paper, the league did them a favor, as the majority of those matchups, if they feature a comparable opponent, include one team that most observers would predict to be lottery-bound. Two notable exceptions are Dec. 18 and 19 road games at Houston and Oklahoma City, as well as March 2 and 3 contests against the Knicks at the United Center and against the revamped Nets in Brooklyn.
Aside from the two six-game journeys, there are no road trips of more than two consecutive games, and assuming Derrick Rose’s return gets the Bulls back to the home-court powerhouse days that marked Thibodeau’s first two campaigns in Chicago, even the most harrowing home stretch — a six-game run beginning March 7 with Memphis, Miami, San Antonio, Houston, Sacramento and Oklahoma City visiting the United Center — can be stomached, especially with a day of rest in between each of the contests.
[RELATED: Bulls open regular season in Miami]
All of the analysis in the world can’t predict injuries, losing streaks, shooting slumps and the like, but still, prognostication seems to be the name of the game these days. That said, with Thibodeau at the helm, it’s no secret that the Bulls are once again likely to push for the league’s best regular-season mark and thus, prime playoff positioning, complete with home-court advantage, something that isn’t out of the question, regardless of the stiff in-conference competition.
But while that’s been Thibodeau’s nature, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he’s only entering his fourth year as an NBA head coach, and as much as he studies the game in the offseason, whether it’s through his own development as a coach or in-house directive, it shouldn’t surprise fans if the typically high minute totals for regulars like Rose and All-Star teammates Luol Deng and Joakim Noah are a bit lower than usual in the upcoming season. Seeing the likes of his former boss, Doc Rivers, and both coaches in June’s Finals, Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra, periodically rest their stars during the regular season couldn’t have been ignored. And with Rose, even fully healthy, coming back from a serious injury and year-plus layoff, as well as Noah and Deng each having health issues, it could provide the impetus for Thibodeau to follow suit, if only to a certain degree.
Given that hypothetical scenario, it looks like the Bulls will win 55 games in the 2013-14 season. That might seem low, but assuming others in the East — particularly the aforementioned Heat and a veteran-heavy Brooklyn team, led by a rookie coach in Jason Kidd, who understood the value of rest in his last days as a player — use the same practice, the race for the conference’s top seed in the postseason will probably come down to the two regional rivals and Central frontrunners, the Bulls and Pacers.
Throwing a bit of a monkey wrench into things, even if Thibodeau makes a slight shift in philosophy to better equip his players for a playoff run, is the Bulls’ desire to take back the divisional crown from Indiana. But that’s why they play the games.
That 55-27 prediction might seem ludicrous come April (honestly, 60 wins also seems reasonable), but with the entire organization’s focus being on winning a championship, regular-season goals shouldn’t be as important anymore.