SAN ANTONIO -- Marco Belinelli would have loved to stay in Chicago last summer. After playing solidly down the stretch last season, the veteran swingman would have enjoyed staying with the Bulls and building on the numbers he put together last season. His teammates knew it -- they knew that Belinelli enjoyed his time in Tom Thibodeau's system. But the Bulls decided to go in a different direction and signed veteran Mike Dunleavy to play with Derrick Rose.
Three months into the season, it's clear the Bulls would have been in good shape going in either direction. Dunleavy is having a solid year after a slow start, and Belinelli is having a career year with the San Antonio Spurs. For the first time since Belinelli left, the Bulls will have a chance to see their old teammate and friend on Wednesday night.
"Right now, I think Marco's playing better than any wing in the league," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "He's playing for a veteran team that knows how to pick the right spots for him. He's shining. I thought that he did a great job last year for us. I just always thought really highly of Marco, especially coming off the bench, a guy that can start, and I think he's a phenomenal player. It's scary because when guys have that kind of feeling after leaving a team they wanted to stay with, it can be nightmares. But we'll be ready."
Some Bulls fans are still upset by the fact the organization decided to go with Belinelli over Dunleavy, but the difference was that the front office thought that Dunleavy was a better fit alongside Rose because of his 3-point shooting ability. If the Bulls had known that Rose would get hurt again, it's not much of a stretch to think they would have brought back Belinelli and Nate Robinson. Either way, the reality for the Bulls is that they'll see a motivated player in Belinelli on Wednesday night, one who wants to show Thibodeau & Co. they made the wrong choice.
"Marco's a hell of a player," Bulls guard Jimmy Butler said. "And all my former teammates, I take it personal whenever I have to guard them, so I feel like I'll be guarding him a little bit and giving him all I have on both ends of the floor."
The two-week trip begins: Wednesday's game will mark the first of six games that will take the Bulls to Texas, Louisiana and then the West Coast. It's a trip Gibson and Butler are looking forward to.
"It's going to be a lot of adversity," Gibson said. "A lot of naysayers, a lot of people not on our bandwagon, but we've been like this for the last couple years now. We just got to focus on the next one, focus on San Antonio, no matter what just keep focusing on ourselves, focus on what we can do better. We're going to get some guys back healthy. It's going to be a good test and it's good to get away. We're going to be on the road by ourselves and just get away from home for a while. Just to focus on getting some wins and focus on having adversity on the road."
It's clear Thibodeau is delivering a clear message to his team before it begins this trip: "Nobody believes in you." It's a mantra Thibodeau has used a lot in the past, but one he's hoping his players will buy into even more now.
"It's a big one," Butler said of the trip. "On the road, Western Conference, I guess all the odds are stacked against us, but that's the way that we like to play. We're Chicago and everybody counts us out, so we got a lot to prove."
The last word: Gibson, on why the Bulls continue to struggle against Western Conference teams. (After Monday night's loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Bulls are 4-10 against the Western Conference.):
"I don't really know. It's tough to call because I just feel like we just get off on the wrong foot at home sometimes. That's what I really think. I think some days we're phenomenal in the first quarter and we finish games strong, and some nights we don't even know our identity. ...
"But we're going to be in the West. We're going to get a huge wake-up call as far as how the West is played. I feel that we're capable of beating West Coast teams, I just feel that we have to have our minds right at the right time. We can't be playing around as far as just understanding what we have to do."