They're going to win games, the Bulls are, but they cannot contend for a championship. Not this season. This isn't the rosy outlook you were hoping for on opening day, is it? The city that majors in "Wait 'til next year" got a taste of flirting with basketball greatness again and planned on hanging around the big action for a while. Yet, here we are at pro basketball's New Year's Day with nothing obvious to get excited about. It's not going to sizzle like last season or the season before. Any thoughts of beating LeBron and Miami have gone from daydreams to pipe dreams. You don't lose your best player in professional basketball and keep on keeping on. This isn't like the Giants telling Melky Cabrera "thanks, we got this."
The Lakers would have zero chance of seriously contending without Kobe Bryant. OKC would drop like a stone without Kevin Durant. Miami, which has a second Hall of Famer in Dwyane Wade, would nonetheless take a step back without LeBron James. And the Bulls, as we found out in April, aren't going to be an elite team without Derrick Rose. The Bulls don't have to believe that. Tom Thibodeau is too damn competitive, thankfully, to buy into that for one second. All evidence suggests he has the players on this roster, new as some of them are to the mix, believing they'll win this season, whatever "win" is. At least one Las Vegas book has defined that as winning 48 games, which seems, well, awfully ambitious.
None of this is to suggest the Bulls are embarking on a wasted season. It shouldn't be lost from a competitive standpoint; the Bulls certainly ought to make the playoffs and could still win the Central Division. And it's absolutely a significant season in terms of planning/building for the day that Rose is back on the floor for real.
As for right this minute, beginning with Sacramento in the opener, the Bulls will still put a pretty good team on the floor, one that should finish better than .500, one that features a pretty OK starting lineup of Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton at the guard positions and a frontcourt of Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer. The first three players off the bench (Taj Gibson, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson) all know how to play specific roles. Can Robinson, erratic as he is, be the equivalent of C.J. Watson and John Lucas III? Well, yes. Nazr Mohammed isn't anywhere near the defensive force Omer Asik is, but he's about 100 times the offensive threat Asik is. So, that's nine players, and it ought to become 10 if Jimmy Butler can become the new Ronnie Brewer. The top eight players are all known quantities. All of the above is pretty good stuff.
You want the bad news? Deng, Boozer, Hamilton, Noah and Hinrich have all missed a ton of games in recent years with injuries. And while Belinelli/Robinson/Gibson/Mohammed/Butler has promise as a group, it's impossible to not compare them constantly to the bench mob they're trying to replace, which was the most productive second-five in the league last season (Kyle Korver/Asik/Gibson/Brewer/Watson). And it doesn't help that Belinelli had an absolutely horrible preseason.
What they'll be counting on is what Thibs has been able to coax out of his team for consecutive regular seasons, which is to say his team bringing it each and every night in a way most other teams don't. It's the only approach Thibs knows and will likely, if the starters can stay healthy enough to play 65 or so games together, get the Bulls north of 40 victories even if they don't have an All-Star.
But therein also lies an issue that bears assessing going forward. The NBA doesn't pay off on pedal-to-the-metal regular seasons. And when Rose does come back it would be irresponsible to even think of playing him 40-plus minutes per game. So, how long will it take Thibs to back off some during the regular season? How will he evolve as a coach to get his team not just through the regular season but better prepared for the postseason? This isn't something that can wait until Rose returns.
We'll never hear John Paxson and Gar Forman talking publicly about "next season," although a great deal of their attention this season has to be devoted to just that. The folks who agitated for Forman to make a splash deal this season couldn't have been more misguided. He's taken exactly the course needed to get the team ready for Rose's real return, a year from now. Having Robinson, Mohammed, Belinelli and Vladimir Radmanovic on one-year deals is a great start. Hamilton is essentially up after this season. Marquis Teague and Jimmy Butler will be on rookie deals paying them less than $1 million for the season. Not only that, but the Bulls still have incredibly promising prospect Nikola Mirotic (playing in Europe) and a first-round draft pick that belongs to Charlotte, which even three years from now damn sure looks like a top-five pick, maybe top three.
That's smart and resourceful roster management. The Lakers, with their $3 billion media deal, may be able to simply stockpile players no matter the cost (could be $90 million just in taxes if they sign Dwight Howard to a max five-year deal) because that staggering revenue stream is the ultimate money-in-the-cookie jar. The Bulls, no matter who's running the store, have never spent like the Lakers spend. They're going to have to, like most clubs, pick their spots carefully. (Why else do you think OKC, inches from a championship, traded James Harden? Because the big issue confronting at least 26 of the 30 teams isn't spending relative to the salary cap, but spending, period.) They'll have to sneak into the draft lottery when possible and really invest in developing players they draft or trade for. That's why it's worth watching to see if Butler, starting his second season, takes a jump to becoming a dependable night-after-night player ... to see if rookie Marquis Teague can earn even modest playing time as a backup late this season ... to see if Belinelli is a worthy replacement, even an upgrade, from Korver ... to see how effective the Bulls can be running the offense through Rip Hamilton and, yes, sometimes Noah ... to see if Gibson can play through the annoyance and anxiety of not having a contract extension ... to see how Thibs handles Robinson going off for 35 points one night and infuriating the entire team the next ... to see if Boozer and Deng take up the scoring void and combine to average the 35-40 points per game the offense desperately needs.
This season (mostly) without Rose shouldn't be anywhere near as depressing as the first season without Jordan (1999), which gave us Tim Floyd and nothing much else ... except Forman is with the Bulls because Floyd was. That was hopeless. This season is far from that, even in an improved Eastern Conference.
Miami, not the Lakers, will be the favorite. The Heat are tangibly better, not just because Ray Allen is aboard to give Miami the 3-point shooting it didn't have last season, but because Dwyane Wade is much healthier, much stronger than he was last season, and because LeBron James is unburdened relative to the past four or five seasons, going back to when he was a one-man wrecking crew in Cleveland. Rose's injury gives the re-tooled Celtics another opportunity. It's difficult to see the Pacers or Nets or Sixers sliding past Boston to be Miami's primary challenger.
That's why the order in the Eastern Conference should be Heat, Celtics, Nets, Pacers, Sixers, Bulls, Knicks, Hawks, with the Heat and Celtics ultimately playing again for the conference title. The Western Conference is a little tougher to call, but OKC should take the top spot, followed by the Spurs, Lakers, Nuggets, Clippers, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Jazz, with the Lakers getting it all together in time to meet OKC in the conference finals.
The one thing the Bulls will have that the others won't is the hope that a proven player, a civic treasure, will be warming up in the bullpen. Maybe they go to him in February, maybe not at all this season. But whenever Derrick Rose returns, one would hope he returns to a team that through the course of the 2012-13 season will look worthy of running with him.