Del Negro not sure Bulls are contenders

Chicago Bulls, NBA title contender? You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone around the league throwing that phrase around before the start of the season. Count Vinny Del Negro among them.

At least, Del Negro implied as much Tuesday during an interview on the "Waddle & Silvy" show on ESPN 1000. The context of Del Negro's statement started when the Bulls coach seemed to take exception when asked about sitting Derrick Rose a couple of times at the end of games last season.

"Yeah, he's my best player, but he's still young," Del Negro said. "He's still growing. Confidence is a big thing in this game. Statistically at the end of games last year, Derrick wasn't our best player."

Del Negro was asked if being on the floor late in games is important for Rose to learn how to win a championship.

"Well, I agree with that, but do you think we're ready to win a championship with all these young guys?" Del Negro asked.

Later Tuesday, Del Negro explained he wasn't saying his team doesn't have a chance to win a title.

"No, I'm saying the team ... in order to win titles, you gotta build everyday," Del Negro said. "And we have a lot of work to do, in terms of being a championship-type team.

"Now, in saying that, do we have the players to do it, I think we do. But that takes a lot of work, and it's early in the season with a new group of guys, with the injuries we're dealing with and trying to get everybody on the same page. But it's a long season, and the growth of a team starts at the beginning, and you need to improve, I think, throughout the season to put yourself in those situations."

After talking with then-general manager John Paxson at the end of February, Del Negro started allowing Rose to close out games.

The Bulls, who open the regular season Thursday against the San Antonio Spurs, are being cautious with Rose's lingering ankle injury. Del Negro said the next two days of practice will determine whether he needs to limit his point guard's minutes.

"Well, I want to see where he's at in practice, and luckily we have a couple more days of practice," Del Negro said. "I want to see how he's feeling this morning and tomorrow morning and go from there. It will really depend on how he feels and the flow of the game and how things are going from that aspect."

A few days after Luol Deng said a slow start to the season by the Bulls, who play nine of their first 13 games -- including the dreaded six-game circus trip at the end of November -- wasn't a big deal, Del Negro agreed with his newly minted captain.

"I think it's way overblown, to be completely honest with you," Del Negro said of getting off to a good start to the season. "Of course you want to win every game, but I was most pleased last year with handling the adversity, handling the injuries and all the things that we had to do. We came together at the right time and ended up having a solid year, and we're trying to build on that from last year."

"The mentality is to try to go in and win every game but that doesn't happen, other teams are trying to win games, too, and we do have a difficult schedule. Would we like to start off strong? Of course every team would like to start off strong. I'm more concerned with us getting better on a daily basis so when our schedule does break, or we get on a little bit of a roll, and we get into some type of rhythm then we can get our wins there."

"So it's not an easy process, there is no easy answer to it," he said. "Of course you'd like to get off to a great start. If we get off to a great start and are not improving then I think that's far worse than not building and getting better as the season [goes on] with a young team trying to develop a second-year point guard, trying to get these big guys better, trying to incorporate a rookie or two. I look at the big picture other than just a game at a time. That old cliché, I look at the big picture and how we can improve overall."

Del Negro said Deng, who missed about six months with a stress fracture of the lower right leg, has been impressive, if not all that productive, throughout the preseason.

"Luol hasn't missed a practice, hasn't missed a game, so health-wise he's fine," Del Negro said. " How long that continues, no one knows that. He could continue being healthy the rest of his career or he could -- obviously we don't want him hurt, but things happen; it's a physical game. But he's been fantastic."

"He'll pick up some of the scoring that we lost from Ben [Gordon] but I don't expect him to pick up all of it. I expect him to play hard at both ends. He's one of our captains, lead by example. Use his versatility, guard well, rebound the ball well and do things that he's capable of doing and not do things that he's not. Luol will fill his role, fill his void, I'm just happy to have him back, he gives us more size, he gives us more scoring, versatility and all those things help."