CHICAGO -- The last thing the Chicago Bulls needed on Tuesday night was a reality check.
After playing up and down throughout the preseason, the Bulls, especially the starters, appeared to hitting their stride in the first half of their 94-89 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The loss of Derrick Rose continues to sting, but with Kirk Hinrich leading the way and Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Rip Hamilton playing well together the absence of the former MVP didn't hurt so bad. Even without Rose, the Bulls have enough talent to be one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference, with solid veterans to weather the storm.
But at some point in the first half Hinrich tweaked his right groin and the reality of the Bulls’ situation struck home once more. They are banking on a group of veterans, led by Hinrich, who have dealt with serious injuries throughout the last two seasons. While there's no telling yet whether or not this Hinrich injury is serious, it shined a spotlight on the biggest problem with the current roster. The depth that has been the Bulls' biggest attribute over the past two years is gone.
The starters are all good, but if one of those players goes down Tom Thibodeau's bunch is in trouble. No longer can the Bulls count on C.J. Watson or John Lucas to spell Rose. If Hinrich goes down, Thibodeau must turn to Nate Robinson, Marquis Teague or Marko Jaric. Robinson, sporadic as he may be, is still the best option considering the 19-year-old Teague looks like a JV player trying to stick with the varsity and Jaric has barely played since training camp started.
While Rose’s point guard spot is definitely the most crucial position, it's not as if the Bulls can afford to lose anyone else in the starting lineup either. Aside from Taj Gibson and, to a lesser extent, Nazr Mohammed, there can't be another player Thibodeau has much confidence in at the moment, no matter what he says. Marco Belinelli is 0-for-the-preseason from beyond the arc, missing both of his field goal attempts Tuesday night. Jimmy Butler has looked better at times, but is still an unknown quantity. In the span of five months, the Bulls have gone from having probably the deepest roster in the league to having a roster that depends on its starters more than most. Thibodeau, at least publicly, says he doesn't feel his team is more vulnerable, but what else is he supposed to say?
"No, everyone in that room is capable of playing and playing well," he said after the game. "We are going to need everyone over the course of the season. I expect (them) when they are called on to be ready and get the job done, you never know when it happens. You have to be ready for whoever the other team puts on the floor. Readiness to play is critical. Having the right attitude and the right approach is critical. It could be the fourth quarter you are called upon after sitting there for three quarters but you have to be ready and get the job done."
Do the Bulls have enough of those players right now?
Thibodeau's group deserves the benefit of the doubt because it's still the preseason and they've only been training together for a couple months. But at the same time, it's obvious to anyone watching that the Bulls are trying to create a new identity without Rose and it's much harder to do that when you can't rely on the same amount of pieces that have been in Chicago the last few years.
"We're trying to figure out ways to win without D. Rose being out there," Boozer said. "For us, and I think from that perspective, I think it's great we had this preseason, a full training camp to figure out ways to play ball and win without him right now. And obviously when we get him back we'll implement him into everything, but right now I think the biggest thing we're learning from the preseason is learning how to finish games without him."
Bulls forward Luol Deng expressed the same sentiments. On a night in which the Thunder decided to rest Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Deng and his fellow starters not named Hinrich played an average of 35 minutes apiece.
"I'd rather play a game than practice," Deng said. "We didn't have practice today so we used this as, we need it. They got a lot of guys returning so they want to rest guys, we need to use different lineups and it's different. I think the more games we play right now that don't count is what we need because we know where we want to get to."
But where can the Bulls get to with a veteran-laden bunch that is going to be counted on, at least in the beginning, to play heavy minutes? What can the Bulls do to at least attempt to stay healthy?
"Preventative exercises, ice, What else can you do?" Noah said. "Lift weights, cold tank, compression tights, sleep, no alcohol, good food, no McDonald's. If you do that, then you're putting yourself in a better situation, you'll have a better chance of not getting injured. Obviously anything can happen, but hopefully the basketball gods are on our side."
That's the problem for the Bulls as they start this season. The team is counting on faith and hope that everything will be fine, when recent history and the reality of an 82-game schedule usually tells veteran players otherwise.