On the eve of the season opener, our panel weighs in on three key questions facing the Bulls.
1. What are your expectations for Derrick Rose this season?
Nick Friedell: I expect him to play at an MVP level all season long. Rose was upset by all the criticism he received for his decision not to play last season, and he's more motivated than ever to remind people just how good he is. He still has some rust, but there isn't much left. The key for the Bulls will be for Tom Thibodeau to make sure Rose is healthy and ready to roll once the playoffs start.
Scoop Jackson: Same as they were when he stepped on the court after he won the MVP, after being beat by the Heat in the 2011 playoffs. Derrick loves (I'll write that again -- loves! ) to prove wrong those who have doubts when it comes to his ability to ball. It gets obsessive with him. This season will probably be one of those seasons. I expect him to make everyone at ESPN who ranked him at No. 9 on their poll of best players in the league apologize.
Doug Padilla: There is no reason to think Rose won't be exactly what he was in the past, despite now carrying ACL surgery on his resume. That doesn't necessarily mean an MVP season is on the horizon, but Rose should have no issues being the catalyst on a playoff-bound team. Perhaps the only things that would slow his charge are reduced minutes, especially in games that appear well-decided after three quarters, and some nights off on the tail end of back-to-back games. But this is coach Tom Thibodeau we're talking about, so the concept of reduced playing time for any starter is always met with a raised eyebrow.
2. Are Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer playing their final seasons with the Bulls?
Nick Friedell: The safe money has always been on the Bulls amnestying Boozer at the end of the season. While that still seems likely, there's always a chance the Bulls could keep him if they don't feel as though there is a significant upgrade on the free-agent market. Deng is a different story. He didn't get an extension over the summer, and he doesn't appear to want to take a "hometown discount." Unless he does, he won't be back in Chicago. I don't think either player will be back next season, but again, it all depends on who is out there and how much money the Bulls have once the free-agency market opens.
Scoop Jackson: Yes, to both, but for vastly different reasons. Booz because over the course of his career here, he hasn't delivered the way most in the front office and throughout the city expected. And Taj Gibson is probably going to have the type of season that totally reduces Boozer's value. Deng won't be back simply because the Bulls organization (not team) and the media don't appreciate him. Two justified All-Star Game appearances and still non-stop talk/rumors about trading or getting rid of him. If I'm Lu, it's deuces the second that final buzzer of the season sounds.
Doug Padilla: The safest bet is that Deng is playing for a new Bulls contract, while Boozer is on his way out following the season. Despite his size and strength, Boozer doesn't seem to be a self-starter when it comes to the banging and bruising defense Thibodeau likes to play. There are times when Boozer asserts himself, but it doesn't seem to be a first instinct. With Rose back in the fold and Jimmy Butler showing he can be an offensive threat, expect the Bulls to use the Boozer money to find a space-eating defensive stalwart, and maybe even a long-distance shooting threat for the bench as well.
3. Who is a bigger threat to the Heat, the Bulls or Pacers?
Nick Friedell: The Bulls. The Pacers are a solid, deep team, but they do not have a Derrick Rose. I think people have forgotten how good the 25-year-old is -- and can still become. Paul George is getting better, Roy Hibbert is a nice player and Danny Granger may still have some juice in the tank (after he comes back from his calf injury), but none of those guys are Rose, and that's why I think the Bulls pose the biggest challenge to LeBron and the Heat.
Scoop Jackson: With a worse record in the preseason than Cleveland and Detroit, the defenders of the Central Division crown are making last season look like it was a fluke. This time last year, with similar great expectations placed on them, it was the Lakers that were imploding, going without a win in the preseason. People figured that it didn't matter, that once the preseason was over the Lakers would get their act together. We all saw how that turned out. Now the Pacers look as if they could be the 2013-14 version, the Lakers East. Therefore, my answer, for the regular season, is: them Bulls.
Doug Padilla: Since their goals are more trained on NBA championships than winning a division title, the Bulls will remain as the biggest threat. That premise will certainly ring true on opening night Tuesday when the Heat will raise a banner to the rafters before they take on the Bulls. That certainly doesn't mean Indiana will be overlooked, and the evidence of that will come during some intense regular-season matchups with the Pacers this season. Heck, even before the preseason opener against the Pacers, many Bulls players were chatting up the rivalry with their border-state foe.