Taj Gibson is much like the rest of us, except, you know, the part where he can slam dunk a basketball over a 6-10 person and he has a pretty impressive primal scream. Yeah, but other than that he hates to pack for those long trips just like you. Because you have to think about what you’re going to wear like 10 days from now, and what’s the weather in each city and do you have enough underwear? And invariably you forget something big and are looking for a 24-hour place to get some socks.
It’s the Bulls annual “circus” road trip, more to leave the United Center to the clowns than to be taken for one on the road. It starts Tuesday in Portland and keeps the Bulls on the road through Nov. 25 in Philadelphia, a jagged line west, back east, back west again and then all the way across the country four times zones east. It’s the rainy Northwest to the mountains, back to the valley and ocean, then back to the mountains and then right into a cheese steak. It’s six games against some of the hottest teams in the NBA, the Bulls 6-4 and still trying to figure out just who they are and how good.
“We’re playing some really good teams,” said Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. “We’ll find out a lot about ourselves, especially on the road. My playing experience especially on these long road trips is it does give your team an opportunity to bond. We’ve talked about how much chemistry this team has built, how well they get along. It’s an opportunity to spend a lot of quality time on the road. Most teams with as many new faces as we have there are a lot of ups and downs. With this group now it’s a matter of trying to be a more consistent team. We took strides in the right direction defensively in the last two games.”
The Bulls are 6-4, a nice opening 10-game stretch for the first stage of the season, winners of three of the last four led by Jimmy Butler’s scoring. It’s now seven of the next nine on the road.
The good news is this is expected to be the Bulls last long, sustained road trip because of the circus. That’s scheduled to change for next season, though there’s another two weeks on the road later this season for the Ice Capades show. That, too, is expected to be curtailed next season.
But as the old pro Dwyane Wade understands, it’s still 41 at home and 41 on the road for everyone. And no one seems to ever think their schedule is fair.
That’s the leadership that Wade brings to the team, diminishing the stress and emphasizing the positive. It is an important early stretch for the Bulls because after they return they have a run of 12 of 17 at home into early January. It’s a chance with a good kick start through November to put themselves in strong playoff contention in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls will begin without Doug McDermott, who is in the league’s concussion review and may not be on the trip. Hoiberg said it remains uncertain. McDermott has generally been the first reserve in games and has been the team’s best shooter. Nikola Mirotic will probably fill his role with Jerian Grant, Paul Zipser and Denzel Valentine being asked to fill in. Michael Carter-Williams is making the trip, but probably will not be ready to play.
And this is the sort of trip a team needs to be ready.
“Obviously Portland, that first test will be huge for us,” said Hoiberg. “Very powerful and explosive, especially in their arena. Heck of a test.”
Here’s a look at the opponents:
Portland Trailblazers, Tuesday Nov. 15: Remember when Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson were the greatest backcourt ever? They’re not even best in the NBA anymore. That’s in Portland with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. They’re combining to average 53 points per game, about eight more than Curry and Thompson. Lillard has been phenomenal, averaging 31 points and shooting almost 40 percent on threes. And he attempts the third most per game behind only Curry and James Harden. They’re fourth in scoring, though you can score on them. They’re going to make you with a fast game.
Utah Jazz, Thursday Nov. 17: They make it difficult to score. They allow the second fewest points per game with an inside tower to Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. They’re also fourth in defensive efficiency, but have trouble scoring without George Hill. They went East and went 4-1, but have been missing Hill lately with a sprained thumb. He’s been off to the best start of his career as they added Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw to complement their youth with Gordon Hayward back from injury.
Los Angeles Clippers. Saturday Nov. 19: Probably playing the best in the league with a point differential of more than 15 per game, which would set a league record and projects to about 76 wins. Is this finally their year…to get out of the second round? Their big three with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have been blowing away teams as they are first in the league by a wide margin in field goal defense with Jordan blocking everything near the rim.
Los Angeles Lakers, Sunday Nov. 20: The only back to back on the trip, and the Lakers aren’t quite the joke anymore. With new coach Luke Walton they’re playing Golden State style without Curry, which is why they’re not winning the title or probably making the playoffs. But they play at one of the fastest paces in the league and are one of the highest scoring teams with their young legs. They’ll look to run the Bulls on the second of a back to back after a Saturday night in Los Angeles. They’re among the top 10 in three-point attempts per game with the free shooting Lou Williams and Nick Young. Former Bull Luol Deng starts, but averages only about six points.
Denver Nuggets, Tuesday Nov. 22: Not like they’re threatening the playoffs, but they’re a physical team leading the league in rebounding with their big men Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic. High altitude and all that and a week on the road.
Philadelphia 76ers, Friday Nov. 25: Another Thanksgiving in the ballroom with the guys. They better like one another. This is the game you have to get because well, it’s the 76ers and while they are better and Joel Embiid is good, they still have too many big guys and not enough little guys and still tend to get blown out a lot. Final games in your 12th day on the road make is difficult no matter who it is.
Everyone wants to win every game, but if the Bulls could split and come home above .500 it would be a heck of a November to launch the rest of the season.
“The West Coast swing from numerous years has always been tough,” acknowledged Gibson. “It’s always hard to go on the road, especially on the West Coast. So any kind of win we can get early can give us some leeway, but we do understand it’s going to be tough.”
Anyone know the weather for Denver? Snow? Philly? Hurricane season over? Where’s the nearest Eddie Bauer? Does Wal-Mart carry Hanes?