Bulls head west as schedule takes difficult turn

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Joakim Noah should return from an illness, but Kirk Hinrich is unlikely to be ready for the start of the Bulls' six-game road trip out west against the Spurs.

When the calendar flipped to 2014, the Bulls were still reeling following the loss of Derrick Rose, dragging a 12-18 record into the new year. Tanking was the hot topic of conversation, and it ramped up even more once Luol Deng was traded for picks, savings and flexibility.

But with a plethora of mostly Eastern Conference bad on the schedule in January, the Bulls, led by Joakim Noah, D.J. Augustin and defense, took it upon themselves to bust those tanks. The Bulls have gone 10-4 in January, putting them at a perfectly mediocre (in Reinsdorf's own words!) 22-22 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference.

However, things are about to get a lot tougher.

The Bulls kick off a six-game road trip Wednesday against "Best Wing In the League" Marco Belinelli and the Spurs. Like the Bulls, the Spurs have dealt with some injury issues this season, as Tiago SplitterKawhi Leonard and Danny Green are currently out. Manu Ginobili left Tuesday's loss to the Rockets with a hamstring issue that will also keep him sidelined for Wednesday's game.

But even with those injuries, the Spurs are still the Spurs, and the Bulls have stunk it up against the Western Conference this season. The Bulls are just 4-10 against the West, and we know how much of a disaster that Circus Trip was earlier this year.

Noah should return from his illness, but it's looking like Kirk Hinrich will miss his fifth straight game with a hamstring injury. Hinrich said the injury has improved, but K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune says it's unlikely the point guard returns to face San Antonio. Surely all part of Kirk's diabolical plan to make the Bulls' record without him worse.

In addition to the Spurs, the Bulls will face the Pelicans, Kings, Suns, Warriors and Lakers on the road trip. Not exactly a murderer's row, but difficult nonetheless considering the Bulls' struggles against the West and on the road. The Pelicans have already beaten the Bulls once and have played well over the past week or so. The Bulls were pounded in Sacramento last year, and if Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins are healthy, another ugly loss wouldn't be surprising. The Bulls did beat the Suns earlier in the year, but that was right after Eric Bledsoe went down and Phoenix has stemmed the tide in recent days. The Warriors are insanely talented and Oracle Arena is a tough place to play, although the Bulls somehow won by a lot in that building last year. Finally, while the Lakers suck, the Bulls barely beat them at the United Center just a few days ago.

The schedule doesn't really ease up following the road trip. In February alone, there are games in Toronto, Miami, Atlanta and Dallas. There are home games against the Hawks, Nets, Nuggets and Warriors. All of those teams besides the Nuggets are currently playoff teams.

Looking even further ahead to March isn't all that pretty either. Two games against the Pacers. Another game against the Heat. Games against the Grizzlies, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder and Blazers. Yikes. The schedule lightens up in April, though!

Despite the rough road ahead, I still envision the Bulls making the playoffs unless there are more major injuries. Namely, one to Noah. However, I would anticipate the losses to pile up at a decent rate, which could leave the Bulls in one of the two extremely undesirable spots at the bottom of the East playoff picture. Finishing in the No. 7 or No. 8 spot of course means a first-round matchup against the Pacers or Heat, and I'd much rather get in the lottery than see one of those teams in an opening round series. But at the moment, the only other East teams that look capable of jumping the Bulls are the two New York teams, so I'm not firing up the tanks again just yet.

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