Kobe: Bulls still are contenders

Kobe Bryant isn't counting out Derrick Rose and the Bulls next season. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS -- There are plenty of skeptics who believe that because of Derrick Rose's knee injury, the Chicago Bulls have suddenly fallen from the ranks of the championship caliber teams in the NBA. Kobe Bryant isn't among them.

"Why wouldn't I?" Bryant said after Team USA's first practice Friday afternoon. "You look at what they did without Rose in the lineup, you plug him into that mix what are they going to look like? No question (they still are.)"

One of the reasons Bryant is so confident the Bulls can continue to win without Rose is because of his old friend Tom Thibodeau. Bryant worked out with Thibodeau in Philadelphia while he was a teenager and Thibodeau was an NBA assistant. He knows the veteran coach will find a way to squeeze the most out of his team.

"He's a great coach," Bryant said. "I felt like the Bulls did a fantastic job this season in terms of kind of holding the fort down while he was out. You're missing such a big part of your team (without Rose), but I felt like Thibs did a great job of putting guys in a position to be successful and they really held it down for as long as they could, man. It's a shame they couldn't get out of that (first) round, but with Derrick back it's really going to improve them, obviously."

In the short term, Bryant knows he and his USA teammates are going to struggle without Rose. He believes that in the long term, the Bulls are going to be fine, though.

"Just the way he plays," Bryant said of Rose. "Everybody here has to bring their individual games to the table and it elevates us a whole by doing that and his penetration, his shooting ability which has improved tremendously, his defensive speed, his ability to get in the passing lanes, create extra possessions for us, those are all things that we'll miss."

Bryant's optimism regarding the Bulls' future was shared by other stars around the league.

"Definitely," Thunder guard Russell Westbrook said. "They've got the pieces. When he's healthy, he can do a lot of great things for his teammates. They still have the same team, I don't think they made any moves to my knowledge, but I think they'll be good."

Westbrook, a good friend of Rose's, said he had spoken to the former MVP recently.

"I talked to him a little bit," Westbrook said. "He's doing well ... Chicago don't got to worry, buddy."

That's the impression Westbrook's teammate, Kevin Durant has as well. While he hasn't spoken to Rose since his injury, he too is convinced the Bulls are still in pretty good shape.

"Yeah, a lot of people are counting them out because of D. Rose's injury," Durant acknowledged. "But Thibodeau is an unbelievable coach, they have an unbelievable system, they're defense is great and they play together."