One of the top storylines entering the 2009-10 season was whether this would be the final go-round for Boston's Big 3. Ray Allen is set to become a free agent after the season and the Celtics will have to debate the merits of signing a guard who will turn 35 years old next summer.
When the Celtics visit the Bulls on Saturday night, they need only look at the effects of subtracting just one key ingredient from a successful recipe to understand the danger in messing with what works.
Little more than six months after engaging Boston in what has been dubbed the greatest first-round playoff series in NBA history, the Bulls are a team in turmoil. The loss of Ben Gordon to free agency, coupled with early-season injuries, have left Chicago with an 8-13 record, a coach on the hot seat and questions about the team's desire.
Certainly, it's dangerous to pin all the blame for Chicago's struggles on Gordon's departure, just as it's hard to compare Allen to Gordon. While both players are shooting guards that attended the University of Connecticut, they're also at very different stages of their careers. Gordon spent five successful seasons in Chicago before taking a $55 million payday to sign with the Pistons, division rivals, this offseason.
The Celtics know they will be given every opportunity to bring Allen back, maybe even at a discounted rate compared to what he would find on the open market. The question becomes whether it's better to start a youth movement or stick with what's proved successful.
Surely the Bulls knew they couldn't sign all the young talent they've groomed. But 21 games into the new season, they're still searching for the chemistry that propelled them late last season. Even with the loss of Gordon, the Bulls seemed positioned to take another step in their development this season, with rookie of the year Derrick Rose headlining a talented young group with aspirations of building off that near-upset of Boston in the previous postseason.
But injuries reared their ugly head, with Rose nursing an ankle issue to start the season and Tyrus Thomas suffering a forearm fracture that has sidelined him for the past month. The Bulls had dropped nine of 10 before escaping with an overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors on Friday night. Coach Vinny Del Negro has battled job-security rumors, while the commitment of the Bulls has been questioned during their losing streak.
Saturday's visit by the Celtics shows just how quickly the shine wore off the Bulls this season. When Chicago trekked to Boston on Oct. 30 for a nationally televised broadcast, it was billed as Game 8, a rematch of two Eastern Conference powers after the breathtaking seven-game series five months earlier.
Now, a month and a half after Boston emerged with a lopsided 118-90 triumph at the TD Garden, the last team the Bulls want to see is the Celtics and their 10-1 road record.
Desperate for a win, Chicago righted its ship for at least a fleeting moment Friday. Now with back-to-back visits from the Celtics and Lakers -- and with the Hawks on tap for next Saturday night -- there's potential for even more turbulence in Chicago this week. Friday's win might offer only a 24-hour reprieve.
In the first meeting, Boston opened up a 15-point halftime advantage, then erupted for a 38-point third quarter to make it a complete laugher. Rajon Rondo registered only two points, but added 16 assists and 8 rebounds in a much-ballyhooed matchup against Rose. Eddie House came off the bench to score 22 points, making twice as many 3-pointers (4-of-7) as the entire Chicago roster (2-of-15).
Even the good was bad for Chicago. Joakim Noah registered a double-double with a team-high 16 points and 10 rebounds, but walked out of the game with a team-worst minus-33 in the plus/minus category.
Said Rose at the time: "They played intense defense tonight. I'm happy this is early in the season so we can come back and learn from it."
A mini three-game winning streak helped Chicago improve to 4-2, and it appeared maybe it had learned from the loss. Then Thomas injured his arm in the final win of that streak over Charlotte and the Bulls promptly went 3-11 over their next 14 games.
The lowest moment might have come when Raptors guard Jarrett Jack tied his shoe while holding the ball in the middle of a possession with Toronto on top of the Bulls by 27 in last week's 110-78 beatdown. Pundits remain flabbergasted at how the Bulls just sat there and watched the scene unfold.
But there's hope for Chicago. Despite the Bulls' struggles, they're just a game back of Charlotte for the final playoff spot in the East with three-quarters of the season to go. A win Saturday would go a long way toward rebuilding confidence in themselves and in their coach.
"Obviously, there's a history between the [Celtics and Bulls]," Noah told ESPNChicago's Nick Friedell. "[But] they're completely different when you add somebody like Kevin Garnett. You add somebody like Rasheed Wallace. They're definitely a different team. They're a better team.
"But I strongly believe, we really have to believe we can compete with anybody. And if we believe in ourselves, I think that we can compete with them."
Of course, it would be easier to compete if the Bulls had Gordon. But those are the decisions teams have to make each year. The best teams find a way to maintain their success in the face of tough personnel decisions.
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.