After a five-month lockout that shortened the preseason to two games, the 66-game NBA season starts on Sunday with a slate of five games, featuring the Chicago Bulls against the L.A. Lakers in a 4:00 p.m. Chicago time contest at the Staples Center on ABC.
Then, the Bulls will visit the Golden State Warriors on Monday, the Sacramento Kings on Thursday and return to the Staples Center on Friday for a tilt against former Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro and the new-look Clippers.
Despite the fact that the Lakers will be without Andrew Bynum, whom the NBA suspended for the first four games of the season, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau did his best to explain to reporters after Saturday's practice that his team's Christmas Day opponent -- which also recently traded Lamar Odom for a trade exception, as well as a protected first-round pick -- is still one of the best squads in the league. The hope for Bulls fans is that Thibodeau's mantra -- essentially, that each team in the league is a title contender -- is as effective as it was a season ago.
"The Lakers are a championship-caliber team," the reigning Coach of the Year said. "They've got a lot of experience. You have Kobe [Bryant] and [Pau] Gasol and [Derek] Fisher, who've been through all kinds of different situations. Those three provide great veteran leaderships for that team.
"The strengths of the club are still the same. You have Kobe off the dribble; Gasol in the post, experienced guys who can knock down threes in Fisher and [Steve] Blake; adding a guy like [Troy] Murphy and [Josh] McRoberts, who's is very athletic. [Devin] Ebanks is a young player that has a bright future. And, of course, [Ron] Artest is Artest -- or [Metta] World Peace, I'm sorry. World is a fiece competitor and he brings a lot of experience. This is a team with a lot of weapons and they've been down this road before, where they've had guys out ... and they have the ability to step up. So it's a team that has depth and we have to be ready."
Yes, Bulls basketball is back.
Here's a look at what Bulls fans should watch for on Sunday in the team's season opener against the Lakers.
1. Two-guard battle that began in Philadelphia: Rip Hamilton and Kobe Bryant go way back. Both shooting guards are good friends and played on the same Philadelphia-area AAU team in 1995. Since Hamilton entered the NBA in 1999, Bryant has gotten the better of him in their teams' regular-season matchups -- the former is 10-8 against the latter. However, the Detroit Pistons defeated the Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals as Hamilton averaged a team-high 21.4 points per game.
"It's fun," Hamilton told the assembled media on Friday. "We have known each other since we were 16 and are good friends. And we still get to compete against each other. ... You just try to make it tough for him at both ends. Just as hard as you have to guard him, you have to force him to guard you also."
Similar to the scheme Thibodeau used last season, expect the Bulls to use multiple defenders on Bryant, beginning with Hamilton. Luol Deng, Ronnie Brewer and Derrick Rose also figure to get a crack at the five-time NBA champion over the course of the game. Bryant has a torn ligament in his right wrist, but, unsurprisingly, will play through it. Of course, you would think that will affect Bryant's game, but he has adjusted accordingly to injuries throughout his career. The Bulls know Bryant will get his numbers; the challenge is to contain the Lakers' supporting cast. Hamilton scored 13 points in his Bulls debut on Tuesday and showed that he can make plays in transition, knock down jump shots and find the team's big men using the floppy play set. He must make Bryant work on both ends of the court. And, as an aside, it's been a long time since the Bulls have had a two-guard who is listed taller than Bryant and could legitmately hold his own against the former league MVP. Searching for a measuring stick for the Bulls' two-guard situation? Sunday's matchup between Hamilton and Bryant should do the trick.
2. Which Laker can defend Rose?: No disrespect to Fisher, Blake and Darius Morris, but Rose should continue to have his way against the Lakers point guards. The reigning league MVP averaged 29.5 points and 8.5 assists in two contests against the Lakers last season. Rose has said in the past that Staples Center, where he is 0-3 against the Lakers, is one of his favorite arenas to play at.
Teams around the NBA could stick taller players on Rose this season, given the fact that Paul George and LeBron James, two 6-foot-8 forwards, had some success on the 6-foot-3 guard in last season's playoffs. If the Lakers decide to put a bigger player on Rose, Matt Barnes and World Peace figure to be the options, while Bryant could get time on him late in games. Still, look for a monster performance from Rose, who has been anxious to get back on the court and truly show his refined all-around game.
3. Front-court battle: The Bulls are expected to have the advantage up front over the Bynum-less Lakers. New Lakers coach Mike Brown told reporters in Los Angeles that he plans to start Fisher, Bryant, Ebanks, McRoberts and Gasol, with World Peace, Murphy and Derrick Caracter, among others, coming off the bench. The Bulls will go with a starting lineup of Rose, Hamilton, Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, with C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and possibly Jimmy Butler representing the "Bench Mob." For Bulls fans, it would have been interesting to see how Noah stacked up against Bynum. Although, now it puts more pressure on the Bulls center to produce vs. the Lakers' thin front line. The guess here is that Boozer and Noah will defend McRoberts and Gasol, respectively, and vice versa.
Boozer is familiar with McRoberts from last season's Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Indiana Pacers, but the Bulls are hoping he plays much better than he did then. He looks to be in great shape and finished the preseason on a high note, posting 24 points and seven rebounds in Tuesday's finale. The Bulls should again be among the league leaders in rebounds per game this season, and they will likely get off on the right foot Sunday.
Which team wins and by how much?: The Bulls defeat the Lakers by roughly eight points. Thibodeau's bunch simply has more depth and talent than the depleted Lakers. Rose and his teammates know the importance of getting the compressed 66-game season started with a win, especially considering that the Bulls play 20 of their first 30 games away from the United Center.
“I can’t wait," Rose said after Tuesday's 93-85 exhibition victory over the Pacers, when asked about the Christmas Day tilt in Los Angeles. "That’s prime time."