The Chicago Bulls have a problem. Multiple, actually.
With 10 games remaining in the regular season, they have yet to display the ability to hang with the NBA’s elite class. As of Tuesday’s 126-98 drubbing at the hands of the Bucks, they are 0-16 against the top three teams in each conference.
Worse, a chasm has taken shape between the Bulls' home and away results. At the United Center, they own a gaudy 26-10 record, tying them for the most home wins in the East. But on the road they sit 16-20, making them one of two above-.500 teams in the NBA with a below-.500 road record.
Ask head coach Billy Donovan, and the team’s injury misfortune and jagged rotations make that disparity difficult to read into for lasting significance.
“I think it's hard for me to really evaluate all that (home/away splits), because I think you have to go back and look at players available. You know, who's in games, who's out of games. And we've just gone through that, really, the whole entire year,” Donovan said before Tuesday’s game. “I think our guys have responded pretty well on the road even though our record doesn't say that we do.”
Alex Caruso disagrees.
“It really is on the road for us. I feel like at home we play fine,” Caruso said, prompted only by a general question about lessons learned from the Bucks blowout. “It's just something about being on the road where we gotta lock in and get better.”
Caruso cited on-court observations since returning from wrist surgery six games ago in his assertion. During that stretch, the Bulls have notched convincing home wins over the Cavaliers and Raptors, each of whom are snapping at their heels in the Eastern Conference standings.
They’ve also fallen to the lowly Kings in Sacramento, and been routed at the Jazz, Suns and Bucks.
“The Cleveland game and Toronto. Those have been the only two good games we've played over the last couple weeks, week-and-a-half,” Caruso said. “You gotta come in with a different mindset (on the road), and be ready for things not to go your way and respond.”
Where does Caruso notice that focus fade in hostile environments? The little things — from boxing out, to successfully communicating and executing defensive coverages.
“You want to win on the road, you can't mess too many of those up,” he said. “We're messing way too many of them up.”
And those mistakes add up, to the tune of a 7-14 road record since Dec. 26, when the absences of Caruso and Lonzo Ball first rocked the Bulls’ rotation (they were 9-6 on the road before then).
In that span, the Bulls own a 110.4 offensive rating (around average), 117.7 defensive rating and minus-7.3 net rating (both poor) in away games. At home, they’re 16-6 with a 117.1 offensive rating (elite), 113.3 defensive rating (still not great) and plus-3.7 net rating (very good).
The sample size of games is virtually identical. Using opponent win-loss record at time of contest, so is the strength of schedule.
And while the Bulls’ turbulence was undoubtedly catalyzed by injuries to key players — Ball and Caruso’s COVID-19 absences and surgeries, Zach LaVine’s lingering knee soreness — the returns haven’t improved since getting players back. With Ball’s status nebulous and LaVine’s knee trouble a reality for the rest of the season, at some point the team is what it is.
Why is this question at the forefront now? For one, the Bulls play their next four games on the road, against the Pelicans, Cavaliers, Knicks and Wizards. Winnable games, to be sure, but certainties don’t seem to exist for this team right now.
And the longer the Bulls’ current malaise lasts, the further away homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs slips. The fourth-seeded Celtics currently lead them by 2.5 games (two in the loss column) with 10 to go in that regard. And though Boston faces the most difficult remaining schedule in the conference, according to Basketball Reference, the Bulls rank second in that category.
“That's part of these last  games is us figuring out what it takes to win on the road,” Caruso said. “At home, I think we do a pretty good job of being locked in, playing desperate, executing coverages, talking. On the road it's a different animal.”
Added DeMar DeRozan: “We gotta have that chip on our shoulder when you go on the road and understand it's us vs. them. The 15 guys that come. It's us. We gotta accept that challenge and thrive in those moments and understand what's at stake — and find enjoyment when you go on the road, because you know your back is already against the wall.”
How will DeRozan know that the Bulls are finally responding to that challenge?
“As soon as that jump ball goes up, we playing like it's the last two, three minutes of a game,” he said. “We're gonna have to do that, especially going into the playoffs. Most of the guys on the team haven't been to the playoffs, so it's on the guys that's been there to put that desperation out there and show it.
“I gotta be better, all the veteran guys on the team gotta be better, so it can be contagious.”
There’s time left for the Bulls to buck the trend. But the clock is ticking.