Bulls have lot to prove to themselves

CHICAGO -- When Derrick Rose raised the MVP trophy in 2011 after a 60-win season, there was a feeling throughout Chicagoland that the Bulls were entering a new era of greatness after the long post-Michael Jordan darkness. Key word in there being "era."

That concept has now been long forgotten, there's no longer time for the Bulls to lean on the long run. If they are going to make something happen with what was once a promising core of young players, then the time is likely right now.

That's the reality the Bulls carry as they enter the 2014-15 season. The Cleveland Cavaliers' potential super team, with roles to define and some holes to fill, is perhaps now as vulnerable as it will be for the next few years. The Indiana Pacers are devastated with Paul George's injury. The four-time defending East champs in Miami have taken a step back. Derrick Rose is as healthy as he's been since his ACL tear but his reliability is in question. Joakim Noah is wearing down a bit, coming off knee surgery that he has said will change his life. Their huge free-agent pickup, Pau Gasol, is 34 years old with his own history of knee problems. Taj Gibson turned 29 over the summer.

Simply put, there's no more waiting for next year for the Bulls.

The entire Bulls organization has been traumatized by the past few seasons and the scar tissue from that has perhaps made the enthusiasm coming into this season just a little more cautious. Indeed, the Bulls are as deep and as talented as they've been in the Rose era, essentially two deep at every position and with perhaps the most impressive frontcourt rotation in the league.

But because of their recent past, their frame of mind has been altered -- nothing should be assumed.

"It's not just the adversity Derrick went through, it's the adversity we all went through," Noah said. "That will make it sweeter when we win it. When you bring a guy like Derrick back, the possibilities are endless."

The Bulls' array of possibilities is what is perhaps most intriguing about them. On one hand, you can tick off their roster and talk about just how much better they should be offensively, which has regularly been a weak spot, because of a few moves: the Rose return, the Gasol addition and the draft-night trade with the Denver Nuggets to leap up and grab Doug McDermott, who was one of the most prolific scorers in recent collegiate history.

Rose and Gasol running pick-and-rolls late in important games and McDermott's fantastic ability to create his shot seem like they are the perfect antidote for the Bulls' offensive woes last season. After the latest Rose knee injury, the team was in such an offensive jam that Noah basically had to re-invent himself as a point-center just to tug the Bulls into the postseason.

Team president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman attacked the problem. After swinging big for Carmelo Anthony, they won the Gasol sweepstakes and coveted McDermott enough to trade two first-round picks for him. They did some impressive salary-cap wrangling to afford to bring over prized 2011 draft pick Nikola Mirotic from the Spanish pro league, believing these moves provide the tools for the Bulls to make a legitimate run this season.

On the other hand, it is a little murky as to how the Bulls will use these additions because of coach Tom Thibodeau's devotion to defense and veteran players.

Last season, Thibodeau was so unimpressed with Carlos Boozer's defense that he benched him in every fourth quarter in favor of Gibson and Noah, a duo that usually created a defensive wall in the middle even if often it left an offensive hole. He's got a better option now with Gasol, but Thibodeau can still play only two of the three -- Noah, Gibson and the future Hall of Famer Gasol -- at one time. Their track records suggest Gasol is the weakest of the three defensively.

A common storyline heading into the season is whether Gasol or Gibson will start. For now, Thibodeau has Gasol in there. It matters little outside of ego -- and Gibson has wanted to be a starter for some time now -- who starts. Boozer started all last season but didn't finish. So who will finish for the Bulls? It had to be something all parties considered deeply before Gasol turned down the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat among others when he signed a three-year, $22 million deal with Chicago last summer.

Thibodeau, naturally, has been non-committal but his track record on the matter suggests defense will always come first.

When asked about the offense at the start of training camp this week, Rose described an offensive possession and listed how five teammates would be out there alongside him including Gasol, Gibson and Noah. Even Rose, it seems, is unsure how Thibodeau is going to figure it out.

As for the anticipated rookies, McDermott and Mirotic, Thibodeau is going in with a "show me" approach and typically doesn't seem as enthusiastic as his front office. At least for now.

"When you look back through history, you see that there haven't been two rookies in a championship rotation for a long, long time," Thibodeau said. "They're unproven. We have to be patient and give them an opportunity to grow and learn."

There's no doubt the Bulls are a better team than they've been the past few seasons. In examining the situation, at least in September, they appear to be aligned to win a lot of games and put themselves in position to have a chance at the Finals. All that is positive news for a team that's basically had to accept substitutions to the ending of the past three seasons.

But they still have a lot to work out and a lot to prove, even if it's just to their head coach.

"We've been following attentively what's been going on in the league; we know about Cleveland," Noah said, referring to his old rival that is now renewed. "But it's not about the other teams right now. It's about us. It starts with us."