When Derrick Rose wrecked his knee during the NBA playoffs last spring, the gloom and doom reached pathetic proportions that the city has yet to shake. Everyone from sports pundits to folks at the corner tavern has been predicting the worst for months. To hear them talk, another NBA championship now appears as distant as the Michael Jordan glory days.
Even the Bulls’ front office seems more focused on the distant future than on the season ahead. “I’ve said this in the past, and I’ll say it again,” says Gar Forman, the team’s general manager. “I don’t want to put a cap on what this team can become. Obviously, we’ve taken somewhat of a hit in the short term, but we feel, big picture, we’re headed in the right direction.”
Hold on, Bulls fans. Can we at least wait until the season begins before surrendering? “Fans have to be patient,” says Stacey King, a former center for the Bulls who now provides TV analysis for their games on Comcast SportsNet. “If [the team] was going to throw in the towel, they wouldn’t have brought [most] everyone back and upgraded the bench. I think the Bulls are doing it the right way, making calculated moves until their superstar comes back.”
That “until” is the most serious matter confronting the team. “Derrick is the big elephant in the room, the issue that transcends everything,” says Sam Smith, who covered the Bulls for the Chicago Tribune for two decades and now blogs on the team’s website. Doctors think Rose could be back this season—perhaps “around the All-Star Game” in February, Smith says—and he will bring some new skills, and some new smarts, to the court. “He was going to have to change his game [as he grew older],” says Michael Wilbon, a columnist and TV host for ESPN. “He couldn’t be the daredevil forever. That process has jump-started because of his injury. Derrick is going to adjust and evolve. He won’t be less bold; he’ll be more creative. But he won’t go to the hoop as a force of nature as frequently as we have seen. He’ll have to pick his spots.”
Until their MVP returns, the Bulls clearly have a huge hole in their lineup. “They are going to be in a lot of close games and not have a guy who can finish like Rose,” says Smith. Still, last season “they played 27 games without him and went 18–9,” thanks in part to contributions from Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Carlos Boozer. “When you have that many players at a high level at their position, you have a good chance of competing.” And in Rose’s absence, expect some other unsung players to step up in surprising fashion (see below).
Smith sees the Bulls winning 47 games this season, which seems about right: They won 62 games two years ago with Rose at full strength. Where does this leave them come playoff time? “They will be competitive. But contenders? No,” says Wilbon, a Chicago native and lifelong follower of the team. “To have high expectations would be almost unfair.”
Smith disagrees. “Other than Miami,” he notes, “every team in the Eastern Conference is seriously flawed. You know who the number one team is—and have no idea who’s number two. The Bulls could end up anywhere from second to eighth in the conference.” If they land in the opposite bracket from Miami at the beginning of the playoffs, Smith argues, they would have a shot at meeting the Heat in the conference finals. Four victories there and they would face the Western Conference winner for the NBA championship.
Sure, that’s an improbable scenario. But when Smith, a press-box legend who’s earned the right to be cynical, says he’s optimistic, this Bulls fan feels good heading into the season.
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DON’T MISS THESE GAMES
Pacers on December 4: Battling division rivals
Lakers on January 21: Western foe at United Center
Heat on February 21: Rose back to face champs?
Knicks on April 11: Positioning for the playoffs
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4 PLAYERS TO WATCH
“He’s become a force off the bench,” says King. “A potential breakout player,” adds Smith.
“He’s playing for a new contract,” Smith says. “He’ll be motivated.”
“He can play shooting guard and point guard at a high level,” says Smith.
Photography: (Butler) Gilbert Boucher II/AP; (Gibson) Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune; (Hamilton) Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune; (Hinrich) Scott Strazzante/Chicago Tribune; Illustration: Serge Bloch