Bulls' season may not be lost just yet

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012 10:44 p.m. CDT

In one corner, you have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen. In the other, you have Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Steve Nash and Pau Gasol.

Based on the coverage of most mainstream outlets, you'd think the Heat and the Lakers were the only teams playing professional basketball this week and this winter. The ESPNs of the world may be forced to acknowledge the existence of the Spurs, the Thunder or the Celtics at some point this season.

Whether or not the Bulls will be good enough to merit more than a passing mention or a brief highlight on SportsCenter most nights remains to be seen.

If ever there was a season in which a major-market team that shared the NBA's best regular-season record the year before could fly completely under the radar, it's this year with the Bulls. Their best player, Derrick Rose, won't likely play for months, if at all. And during an offseason where stars like Howard, Nash, Allen, James Harden and Joe Johnson changed teams, the Bulls' biggest additions were Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmanovic and Nate Robinson.

Yet you can make a case that the Bulls are about as likely to make the playoffs as the Lakers, the Heat or anyone else. This is a team that went 50-16 despite Rose playing in just 39 games in 2011-12. They get to play four games each against Central Division also-rans Cleveland, Detroit and Milwaukee and plenty more against other lowly Eastern Conference teams like Charlotte, Orlando and Toronto. Their only real threat in the division is Indiana, and even if they finish second, it's tough to imagine the Bulls not being one of the eight best teams in the East.

With a worse bench than the one they fielded when they lost to the 76ers in the first round of last year's playoffs, it's hard to imagine the Bulls going anywhere without a healthy Rose. But it's possible Rose will be healthy when the playoffs begin. He may have a few weeks under his belt and may be starting to resemble his old self again. And if that happens, why can't the Bulls make a run in the 2013 playoffs?

If Chicago only gets in as the eighth seed, I don't like its chances. Miami would be a huge favorite regardless of how close to 100 percent Rose appears to be. But who else in the conference is unbeatable? Say the Bulls end up as the sixth seed and draw Brooklyn in the first round. There's no way they can't pull an upset? There's no way they can't give Boston a battle with a little momentum in the second round? Maybe the Heat are too much, but I don't know that the Bulls can't at least make it interesting with a little momentum in the East finals.

I know I'm seeing the glass as more than half-full here. Expecting Rose to be a top-five player again by April is wildly optimistic. What I think is more reasonable is my expectation that Tom Thibodeau will get comparable production from his revamped bench than he got from last year's version.

I'm not big on Radmanovic, Mohammed or even Hinrich. There's bound to be some sort of downgrade from the likes of Omer Asik and Kyle Korver. But I've been amazed at the way people are canonizing C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Asik these past few months. The Bulls' bench succeeded more because of Thibodeau and because of square pegs being used to fill square holes than because of great individual talent. I expect it to continue to succeed to some degree.

And I expect the Bulls to continue to succeed. I wouldn't call them the favorite to win it all; if you're assigning odds, they're well behind the Heat, Clippers, Spurs and Thunder and probably trail the Celtics and Clippers as well. But they're going to be pretty good for a team many people think is beginning a lost season.

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