The road ahead looks smooth for Bulls

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- They drove away from the Berto Center earlier this week. Derrick Rose wearing his gray Bulls skullcap. Joakim Noah with his window down, hair flowing like Nick Ashford. There seemed to be a sense of serenity and certainty surrounding them. As if they knew something.

Like something great is waiting for the Chicago Bulls. Like ... it's within their reach.

As the players exited one by one, cameras and microphones and young fans hovered outside of the team's practice compound. Pictures were taken, sound bites given. It was so unlike last season -- when there were relatively no smiles, no evidence of hope, and the end came in April not May.

This time, the Bulls exit the season with a degree of hope that's on par with their football counterparts on Lake Michigan after the news of Jay Cutler's arrival went public. Finishing a couple shots away from advancing to the second round of the NBA playoffs can do that for a team. Especially one that was thinking of pingpong ball combinations midway through the season.

But that all changed this spring against Boston. Now that their season is over, the former "Baby Bulls" (can we please drop that name now and come up with a new one?) will look toward next season with an anticipation of greatness unfulfilled.

Or better, unfinished.

The series against Boston forced the Bulls to discover something about themselves as a unit that they had not been given the time or opportunity to learn previously. They learned who they are and what they are capable of. They learned that this time next year, they will be at the Berto practicing for their next playoff opponent, not saying goodbye.

If you look at the teams last year that pushed the Celtics to seven games, you'll have a clear understanding why hope floats in Chicago. The Atlanta Hawks went from a team that barely nabbed an eighth seed with a sub-.500 record to a team that finished fourth in the East, secured home-court advantage through the first round and is now battling Cleveland in the Eastern Conference semis. The Cleveland Cavaliers went from not having home court in last year's conference semis to a powerhouse that not only finished with the league's best record (securing the home floor as long as they are still playing), but one with a 39-2 (really 40-1 because that last loss shouldn't of counted against them) record at home that almost guarantees them representation in this year's NBA Finals.

The Bulls see all of that and envision some of the same happening to them next year. Hope floats.

But along with that hope comes a deeper shade of optimism. As he says goodbye to the 2008-09 season, Ben Gordon continues to choose his words carefully. While almost everyone's season with the Bulls has ended, his career with the Bulls might have come to an end.

In talking with the media and doing radio interviews (Gordon went on the air with ESPN's Waddle & Silvy on Monday), Gordon's words sounded like those in an exit interview. He stressed on more than one occasion (in more than one interview) that he wants Bulls fans to understand "the business side" of his upcoming decision this offseason.

He makes it clear that he'd love to finish his career here in Chi, but like EMPD this is strictly business. And this is the business that has all players from Kirk Hinrich to John Salmons to Luol Deng a little worried that Gordon might not be back.

Gordon's tenuous future notwithstanding, this team exudes a sense of assuredness. In both itself and management. No major trade rumors loom over the players (outside of the plausible rumor that Hinrich might be on the move to Portland and the farfetched rumor that depending on how the Rockets fare against the Lakers conversations about a Gordon-for-McGrady sign-and-trade might begin.), no leaks from John Paxson's office of a fire sale to clear cap space for Dwyane Wade next year, no worries about who they're going to get in the draft. None of the things that most of the players on this team have grown used to dealing with in the offseason.

"They made the city feel good again about basketball," said local record store owner Dedry Jones, summing up the feeling around the city. "They've given us a feeling of 'Maybe it's that time again.'"

The day after the Game 7 loss to Boston, a photo ran on the cover of the Chicago Tribune's sports section. It's an image that every Bull should cut out and frame. An image they should look at every day until they return.

It's a reminder. A perfect reminder of what they need to do to never have that feeling that you can see on Gordon's face as Eddie House and Ray Allen celebrate. Avoiding that feeling should be all the inspiration they need.

Because if everyone on this team (including those in the front office) does the right thing over the next six months, they'll have a much shorter vacation after next season. Which is something everyone driving out of the Berto Center parking lot would love to experience.

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com.