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Readjusting Bulls unlikely to be in NBA title chase this season

Taj Gibs(from left) Joakim Noah Luol Deng return this year but whole lot has changed. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Taj Gibson (from left), Joakim Noah and Luol Deng return this year, but a whole lot has changed. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:37AM



The Bulls reported to training camp last December convinced it was the dawn of a championship season. Derrick Rose was the previous season’s MVP and in the best shape of his life. He blamed himself for the loss to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. He studied the tape and was convinced he’d discovered a way to beat the Miami Heat’s trapping defense. 

While that was the mind-set then, what it will be when players report to training camp at the Berto Center on Sunday is anybody’s guess.

With Rose recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, common goals are more difficult to define. Familiar faces have been replaced by virtual strangers. Expectations have been ratcheted down.

It might seem strange because these Bulls have yet to pose for the team picture or play in the first exhibition game, but there’s a hint of ‘‘Wait ’til next year’’ in the autumn air.

It’s not just that the Bulls as we knew them are no longer. The landscape of the NBA has shifted. Before last season, the Bulls and Heat appeared destined for a showdown that would determine not only the Eastern Conference champion but perhaps the NBA title. Now LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are newly minted champions and perennial title contenders. Then there are the Los Angeles Lakers, who became the team to beat after acquiring center Dwight Howard and point guard Steve Nash during the offseason.

Don’t forget the defending Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder, the San Antonio Spurs or potential Eastern Conference challengers such as the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks.

The Bulls may not be considered conference heavyweights with Rose on the mend, but they are not without assets. Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Rip Hamilton and Carlos Boozer return, along with valuable bench player Taj Gibson. That’s the core of a team that finished an NBA-best 50-16 last season despite playing just 26 games with Rose. Gone are Bench Mob stalwarts Kyle Korver, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik, C.J. Watson and John Lucas III. In their place are Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic and rookie Marquis Teague.

Hinrich, Robinson and perhaps even Teague will man the point guard position until Rose returns. When that will be is the biggest question hanging over the franchise moving forward. Rose is young, has recovered from injuries quickly in the past and is reportedly pushing the pace of his rehab schedule. But everybody saw what happened when he tried to return too fast from injuries last season. What started out as simple case of turf toe set off a chain of injuries that might as well have ended with Rose in a full-body cast.

That’s why the Bulls will be extremely careful with the face of their franchise, even if it means writing off this season as a rehab year.

Nobody expects that to happen. As important as it is to be patient with Rose, it would be detrimental to be too slow. Getting him back on the floor this season is an important part of his rehab process. He will be playing limited minutes, and he won’t be his usual explosive self at first, but Rose won’t be 100 percent next season unless he plays this season.

Who knows? If the Bulls are as lucky as they were unlucky last season, they could make a deep playoff run and even find themselves matched up against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in three years.

More likely, this season is about getting Rose ready for the start of the 2013-14 season. That’s when Bulls vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman hope to make a run at a championship with the roster built around this starting group. Anything that happens before that is a bonus.

Meanwhile, if there is no shared vision for how the Bulls will fare this season, it’s because the possibilities are limited by how Rose’s knee responds, and that’s something not even Rose can control.



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