The Bulls tip off the 2012-2013 season tonight against the Sacramento Kings and I can't say I am all that excited. Normally I am gung-ho for the NBA and especially the Bulls but with a season starting with no Derrick Rose, no bench mob and a whole bunch of perfectly awesome Stacey King catchphrases now traveling down the River Styx it is just hard to get excited when the heartbreaking end of last season is still fresh in my mind. With all that said I am not calling this season a total wash, but that doesn't mean it will be easy to watch.
The most glaring (and depressing) difference in this Bulls roster is the absence of leader and superstar Derrick Rose. Rose is still recovering from the torn ACL he suffered in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round match-up against the Philadelphia 76ers. Much like Derrick's knee, the Bulls season was done. The road to recovery has been long for Derrick, who has been working hard every day in order to strengthen that injured left knee and come back better than ever. The timetable for Rose's return is cloudy at best and GM Bill Paxson stated that Bulls upper management will take their time with Derrick and not rush him back and risk another injury. Rumors say Rose can be back by March or April but at this point it is possible Rose may not be back on the floor until the 2013 season. The Bulls will have to dig down deep and play well without their leader and that means key players like Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah have to step up their games and their leadership in the locker room.
Aside from Derrick Rose, the Bulls' biggest strength was their deep bench. The Bulls had a decisive advantage over most teams because of how much contribution they could get from their backups. The bench mob consisted of Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, John Lucas III, Jimmy Butler, Mike James and Brian Scalabrine. Of those nine players, only two (Gibson and Butler) remain. The salary cap ravaged the Bulls ability to match other teams' offers for key contributors and big contract tie-ups with Rose, Boozer, Noah and Deng didn't help. The new bench mob, if you want to call them that, is a collection of aging veterans and league minimum players. Nate Washington, Marco Belinelli, Vladamir Radmanovic, Nazr Mohammad, Marcus Teague, and Kirk Hinrich (who will fill in for Rose) are the new faces and Coach Tom Thibodeau hopes to have the same success and contributions from this group as he did with the last.
While I feel the Bulls bench is significantly weaker this season and has already shown some major gaffes defensively there is hope that this group can work together and become a solid unit if they buy in to Thibodeau's system. It will take time but if this Bulls team is to have any regular success with no Rose then it is a must that the bench is a key contributing factor. Most players on the bench are on one year contracts and if they play well it could mean a new deal with the Bulls at the end of the season. For most, their play this season may determine whether they continue their NBA career or start looking for a new source of income.
As I said before the Bulls' veterans need to step up and not only play better but take over Rose's role as the leader in the locker room. Deng and Noah have been with this team the longest and know what is expected from Thibodeau on the court, in practice and in the locker room. They have both matured and it is now their team to take control of while Rose is away.
Carlos Boozer is a ten year veteran who hasn't lived up to his big contract and seems to be public enemy #1 in fans' eyes. Much like the bench players who are on one year deals, Boozer in a way, is on one himself. His lack of consistent play and disappearing acts on defense have given both fans and Thibodeau unnecessary raises in blood pressure. The Bulls have the option to amnesty Carlos Boozer at the end of the season or next season. The writing on the wall is that it will be one or the other in order for the organization to make a big splash or two in the summer of 2014 which will rival the number of big name free agents that 2010 had. With the likes of LeBron, Carmelo, O.J. Mayo, Danny Granger, and Amar'e Stoudemireas just an example of who will be potentially available it is easy to see why the Bulls have the summer of 2014 circled as the year they pair Derrick with another superstar. Boozer could very well be playing for one last big contract in the next year or so should the Bulls amnesty him and it is now or never for Boozer to step up his game. He must get consistent on offense and must show some sort of life on defense. Not only will better play help Boozer on the Bulls but it will help himself in the long run if he expects one more big pay day from another team.
Coach Tom Thibodeau finally got the contract extension he deserved. After back to back seasons with the best record in the NBA and a 'Coach of the Year' under his belt (even though it should have been two) and being the fastest coach to 100 wins it was apparent the Bulls had to give him an extension before the doors were knocked down by other NBA teams ready to throw bags of cash at him. With all that Thibs has accomplished in such a short time he still has improvements that he can make in order for this team to reach its full potential. The biggest criticism of Thibs is that he seems to ride players hard and rack up big minutes in games. Luol Deng, who everyone knew had a bum wrist that possibly needed surgery, could be seen regularly playing in the 40 minute range. Derrick Rose was another example of high playing minutes even if battling through injuries or with the game well in hand.
Thibodeau says if his players are healthy then he wants them to be able to play a full game but it seems as though that method has backfired. While the Bulls have held the best record in the Eastern Conference for two seasons in a row it seems as though they ran out of gas when the playoffs begin. A change in philosophy of how Thibodeau plays his players when games are well in hand or if a player is battling through some injuries could benefit the Bulls in the long run especially if they get Rose back in the late part of the season and can stay in the playoff hunt.
Overall, this looks like a 45-48 win team due to the fact that the East is so weak aside from the Miami Heat and up and coming Indiana Pacers. The Bulls should be able to get a fifth seed in the playoffs and hopefully Rose will be able to come back and the Bulls will be the scariest fifth seed in NBA history. If Rose sits out the entire season then the Bulls may still reach the playoffs but it will most likely be a one and done appearance just like last season. Whether he's playing or not, this Bulls season's success will be determined on the left knee of Derrick Rose.
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