It really still is early in the NBA season. It’s just the first week of December. Fred Hoiberg hasn’t even picked out his Christmas gifts for media members. Dwyane Wade hasn’t selected a restaurant for Christmas Eve dinner with Pat Riley. Jimmy Butler hasn’t decided if he’ll host the Oscars.
The Bulls haven’t done great of late, losing three straight and six of nine to fall back to 11-10, in the midst of nine teams separated by two and a half games between third and 11th in the Eastern Conference. Though it’s been arguably the team’s most difficult stretch of the season, a six-game road trip leaking into the team’s only four games in five nights stretch of the season.
“What we have is what we have,” said Wade. “We’ve won 11; we have enough to win. We just have to get to where we are playing more consistent.”
But as the Bulls Thursday in the 8:30 p.m. national TNT game prepare for face to streaking San Antonio Spurs, 18-4 and 13-0 on the road, these next few weeks for the Bulls are setting up as if not a season make-or-break, perhaps a defining period for the fate of the team this season.
That’s because after the hectic first six weeks, the Bulls have a dominant home schedule for the next month and an unusual period in the next almost three weeks of basically not being out of town at all.
“We have a lot of home games coming up, have to do a better job of coming out with energy and playing at home,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We’ll be in Chicago 15 of the next 16 days; nine of our remaining 13 (in December) are in Chicago and we have to do a good job of coming out and setting the tone in our home building. We have to protect our home court. If we do that we’ll be fine; the big thing now is to stay together, keep fighting, keep playing for each other and go out and play with confidence.”
There’s a possibility Doug McDermott, who has missed the last nine games with a concussion, could return Thursday in the Pau Gasol gala homecoming. Michael Carter-Williams remains out at least a few more weeks. Depth production has been an issue for the team recently, though the trends of late have been pointing downward during the more rigorous schedule period.
The Bulls have dropped to last in three-point shooting, which is not unexpected, especially with McDermott out so long. More worrisome, they fell to 26th in defending the three and 14th overall in defensive field goal percentage. Their rebounding has been keeping them above .500 at second in the league. But assists have fallen to 24th, points are down to 18th and turnovers have increased, the differential now 17th in the league. It’s pointing toward factors for a .500 season.
Which is why this next stretch of games to balance off the difficult first six weeks may be so vital.
“The toughest part where you have a new team coming together and you depend on young guys, it’s that consistency,” Wade reiterated. “The good teams figure it out earlier than not; if we don’t figure it out, we’ll be .500 all year. If we do, we’ll take some games and go over. The coaches have done a good job preparing us; they’ve done their job. It’s on us as players. Whoever comes in the game play their part, play their role, understand the game plan, tendencies and all these things. (If) we don’t do that, we are failing each other. It’s our job as leaders to continue to stay on guys that don’t do that and vice versa to point that out as well; that’s a winning team.”
There obviously have been myriad uncertainties with this Bulls team given the additions of Wade and Rajon Rondo, nine new players, numerous young players trying to establish themselves and find roles. There was an encouraging start, a little setback and then the promising road trip that receded in the wake of the home losses to the Lakers and Portland.
Wade isn’t one to worry. He is the sage of the group, the comforting force. He’s the flight attendant on the airplane in turbulence. If he’s not panicking, you can relax some. He’s the shelter in the storm. His behavior and reactions are the signals to others. He’s not despairing.
So Wade understands the highs and lows, the uncertain starts, the defensive lapses, the kids’ inconsistencies, the injuries.
To the credit of the team, and which probably has a lot to do with Wade and Butler, this has been a Bulls team that doesn’t give up or give in. They’ve had their share of games falling behind. But they come back and compete. They just haven’t always had enough.
Butler is even in the MVP discussion, averaging 26 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists. But his minutes also have been creeping up amidst the weaknesses in other areas and injuries. He’s moved into the top 10 for the first time in minutes per game at 36.2 League leader Anthony Davis is at 38. Wade is averaging a strong 19.8 points per game in 31 minutes with 4.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Taj Gibson is averaging 12 points and eight rebounds, but no one other than McDermott is in double figures and McDermott has missed more than half the games.
Though the area Wade is concerned is at home, where the Bulls are just 5-3. Their 6-7 road record is more encouraging, in a sense, since Wade’s general formula for success is a .500 road record and then playing well at home. If achieved, he says it means a 50-win season, which means top four in the Eastern Conference.
But the Bulls came home from the road trip and lost to Western Conference teams playing about .500 overall and with losing road records.
“We just have to play better in certain games,” Wade said late Tuesday night in Auburn Hills. “Not saying you want to lose, but there are certain games you understand there is a possibility (of losing). What hurt to me was the Lakers game at home, Portland game at home. You have to win those kinds of games. I can understand the Dallas loss. I can understand this (Detroit) loss.
“Those (home games) are the ones that hurt more,” Wade added. “But you are not going to get out of the slump just because you want to. There are a lot of teams going through slumps now. We have to get out of it with our play, play better for longer stretches.”
The opportunity is there. Six of the next seven games are at home. Three of those six teams have losing records; two others now are one above .500. The Bulls play the neighboring Bucks, against whom they’ll likely compete for a playoff spot, three times this month, two in the United Center. Of the 13 remaining games this month, only three are against teams more than one game above .500, two with the Spurs starting Thursday in Chicago and then the Spurs Christmas Day in San Antonio. The Bulls should know a lot more about who they are in the next few weeks.