Prior to the start of the Bulls annual circus road trip, Dwyane Wade stated that going 3-3 would be a success.
Chicago would start their trip with three games against presumed Western Conference playoff teams; the Blazers, Jazz and Clippers, before finishing up against the Lakers, Nuggets and Sixers. With that tough of a stretch to begin, in addition to losing forward Doug McDermott for all six games, many were left with little room for optimism.
But Friday night in Philadelphia, the Bulls ended their two week stretch away from Chicago 4-2, far exceeding everyone’s expectations. They were able to beat Portland and Utah handedly, while coming just a few bad calls and bounces of the ball away from defeating the Clippers and Nuggets. A few things go their way, and the Bulls could very well have ended their trip a perfect 6-0.
Lest, let’s not get greedy here, I’m fairly certain most of us are shocked the Bulls ended with the record that they did. There were plenty of positives to take away from the six games, as well as a few negatives that need to be addressed moving forward.
Where would we be without Jimmy Butler?
He is amazing. When many thought he had reached his peak as a player, he’s made yet another leap in his career, and planted himself in the early MVP conversation. It’s honestly hard to imagine where this team would be without him.
Hoiberg on Butler: "He’s doing it in every possible way at the offensive end. It's fun to watch him."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) November 26, 2016
During their six game road trip, Butler averaged 28.3 points on 50.5% shooting from the field, 41.2% from three with 3.8 assists, and 8.2 rebounds. On the season so far, he’s averaging 25.8 points on 49% shooting from the field, 42.6% from three, 6.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists.
I mean, what else is there to say about this guy? He’s unbelievable.
Bulls taking care of business when they should
Last season the Bulls biggest issue was failing to take care of business against lesser opponents. This season that doesn’t appear to be the case, sans the Denver game (Chicago never wins in Denver). They had games against the Lakers and Sixers walking away with wins in each. These are the types of games that are critical when comes down to April, who makes the playoffs and seeding.
Competing with the best in the West
Chicago’s trip started with games against the Blazers, Jazz and Clippers, all should-be playoff teams in the West. They went in two of those games without their starting point guard, and all three without their sixth man, competing in each and coming away with two wins.
The game against the Clippers could’ve been a win as well had some fourth quarter decision making gone a little better and calls not gone against the Bulls. But they went toe-to-toe with one of, if not the best team in the league down to the wire.
Dwyane Wade building camaraderie
Wade’s leadership is far and away night and day from anything we’ve seen over the past two seasons with this team. He’s taken priority of bringing this team together for bonding sessions off the court in an effort build chemistry with one another.
Hoiberg: "When you’re on the road for 12 days, you come out either loving each other or hating each other. Our guys grew and got closer."— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) November 26, 2016
The night before the Jazz game they went out for a movie, while in Denver they gathered to do an Escape room. These type of things may be subtle, but they do have a significant impact in the long run.
Chicago’s bench lulls
Fred’s gotta do some work here. While he’s done a good job of preventing all-bench units, he’s gotten very little production from the reserves. Here is their scoring during the road trip:
•Bulls (25) - Sixers (47)
•Bulls (13) - Nuggets (61)
•Bulls (32) - Lakers (59)
•Bulls (15) - Clippers (33)
•Bulls (23) - Jazz (24)
•Bulls (24) - Blazers (38)
This scoring issue I would say falls on the reserves more than Fred. When they’re in the game, they’ve got to be able to build off of what the starters have done, produce points and build on leads. Thus far, they’ve failed to do so.
On the opposite end, this falls on Hoiberg. The bench unit he trots out each game; Dwayne Wade, Isaiah Canaan, Denzel Valentine, Nikola Mirotic & Bobby Portis, provides little if any defensive resistance, as eloquently displayed by Denver’s 22-0 run on Tuesday night. This unit had a 113.1 defensive rating in six games.
But the biggest issue is that Hoiberg continues to play the Niko and Portis pairing, which has been a disaster. If there is one thing that needs adjusting moving forward it’s this. Hoiberg can’t afford to keep playing this duo, especially Portis.
Over the six game trip, Portis had a 94.9 offensive rating, 103.3 defensive rating for a team worst -8.4. On the season, Portis is again a team worst with a -5.2 net rating, with a 108.2 defensive rating. As we’ve been preaching, he is simply not ready for the minutes he’s receiving.
4th quarter decision making
The two games the Bulls lost during this trip came down to fourth quarter decision making from Hoiberg and Rajon Rondo. In both the Clippers and Nuggets contests, the Bulls were right there with a chance to walk away with wins, but poor decisions by the two inevitably cost them.
In the Clippers game last Saturday, Hoiberg made a questionable decision to play Portis the entire fourth quarter. With the Clippers playing Mo Speights, Hoiberg countered with Portis, who as a result was severely outplayed and ulitmately changed the direction of the game. Hoiberg failed to make an adjustment, riding Portis until the end.
As for Rondo, his overall decision making led to critical turnovers, poor shot selection in both games, in addition to his inattentiveness defensively. On the season, during clutch situations via NBA.com/Stats, Rondo has a 95.3 offensive rating, 106.1(!) defensive rating for a paltry -10.9 net rating. Moreover, his assist percentage is 10% while his turnover ratio is a whopping 16.8. Not to mention his effective field goal percentage is 25%.
At some point Fred has to make a decision in close games in the final period with Rondo. Can he afford to continue to play him during crunch minutes when he’s proven to hurt the team in these situations?
Chicago had a great road trip, I’ll be the first to eat some crow on this because I did not foresee them coming out of this with a winning record. Even with the negatives pointed out above, this team is good, that’s for sure. And as long as Butler continues his play and ascension, they’ll be there in the playoff hunt.
The Bulls (hopefully with Doug McDermott) will now have 21 of their next 33 games at home, beginning Wednesday, against the Lakers.