- Nick Friedell, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- As the NBA world watches the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers square off in the Eastern Conference finals, the Chicago Bulls are left to ponder a question that may be growing increasingly uncomfortable.
The Heat have been the favorites in the East since the moment LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teamed up in 2010, but with the Pacers charging hard for the Heat's crown the Bulls have to wonder if they are still the best team in their own division, let alone the conference.
Obviously, Derrick Rose returning next season to his pre-knee injury form after missing all of this season is going to go a long way towards determining how good the Bulls can be. But as the Pacers continue to challenge the Heat by playing the type of physical type of basketball that Tom Thibodeau loves, an argument could be made that the Pacers could possibly beat the Bulls at their own game assuming both teams come back next season healthy and ready to go.
Let's take a closer at the matchups between the two teams:
Point guard: Derrick Rose vs. George Hill
If Rose returns to form the Bulls would have the advantage given that Rose was the MVP of the league a couple seasons ago. That's a big if at the moment though, considering if Rose is ready to go during training camp in October, it will have been almost 18 months since he last played a competitive game. Meanwhile, Hill has become a stalwart for the Pacers and is the type of hard-nosed player who coaches appreciate. Hill may not have the scoring ability of Rose but he does have the type of defensive intensity to make things tougher on the superstar. The pair figure to be going after one another for years to come given Rose will be in the second year of a max contract he signed before the start of the 2011-2012 season and Hill signed a five-year deal before the start of this season.
Assuming Granger, like Rose, comes back from the knee surgery that sidelined him for all but five games this year, the Pacers would appear to have the edge here. Granger is more of a traditional small forward, but with the emergence of Paul George, Frank Vogel will find a way to get both on the floor at the same time. Granger has averaged close to 20 points and five rebounds a game throughout his eight-year career while Butler has had a solid four-month stretch for the Bulls. Butler proved down the stretch that he could play heavy minutes night after night and is the kind of defensive presence who would frustrate Granger -- but Granger is a proven scorer in the league and has the type of offensive game that Butler hopes to one day attain.
Small forward: Paul George vs. Luol Deng
Before this season, this would have been a easier choice. Deng was, and still is, a proven commodity in the league while George was an up-and-coming talent. After leading a Pacers team that played without Granger for almost all of the season and raising his game even higher in the playoffs, George has become a budding superstar. George has become the type of star who can put a team on his back and carry them. Deng is a solid player, who became an All-Star for the second time this season, but he is a system player who has dealt with several injuries over the last couple years.
This is an intriguing matchup given that it could look totally different a year from now. Boozer is likely to be amnestied next summer and West is an unrestricted free agent this summer, whom another team may decide to sign for more money. Assuming West is re-signed for at least another year by the Pacers though, this is another showdown that favors Indiana. West has given Boozer fits over the last two years and is the type of rugged low post presence who Thibodeau would love to have. Boozer has been solid offensively the last two seasons for the Bulls but his defense is still an issue and he isn't the type of back-to-the-basket presence the Bulls thought they were getting when they signed him.
Noah became an All-Star for the first time this season and both have proven to be two of the top centers in the game. Both are the focal points of their team's defensive schemes and both repeatedly change shots at the rim. Noah's offensive game, like Hibbert's, has improved over the years. Noah may be the best passing big man in the league but he has struggled with Hibbert's length since college. This pair always seems to bring a different kind of intensity out of one another and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Noah is in the middle of a $60 million extension while Hibbert just signed for almost $60 million last summer. Noah may be more of an inspirational leader and complete player, but Hibbert usually finds a way to neutralize him.
Bench: The Bulls had arguably the best bench in the league two years ago, but they had to completely change it because of the organization's unwillingness to go deep into the luxury tax last summer. After rebuilding it on the fly last summer, Bulls GM Gar Forman is going to have to do it again in the next few months because Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli are likely to end up in a new city because they'll make more money than the Bulls are willing to offer. The Bulls are keeping an eye towards improving their team next summer with more cap space. As of now, the only sure things on the Bulls bench right now are Taj Gibson, veteran Kirk Hinrich, and second-year point guard Marquis Teague. The usually solid Gibson had an up-and-down year this season while Hinrich struggled to stay on the floor because of multiple different injuries. Teague figures to get better with another summer of work under Thibodeau, but he is still an unknown at this point.
The Pacers head into next season with Lance Stephenson likely leading the way off the bench after a coming-out party of sorts during the playoffs. His confidence should be booming after starting most of the year in place of Granger. The Pacers also have young big man Ian Mahinmi locked up for a few more years as a backup for Hibbert -- a luxury the Bulls would love to have after losing Omer Asik to the Houston Rockets last summer. Productive big man Tyler Hansbrough is a restricted free agent this summer and figures to draw interest from other teams. Gerald Green has a couple years left on his deal but he struggled to find a place in Frank Vogel's rotation down the stretch and has barely played against the Heat.
While there are question marks on both sides, Stephenson's emergence, and the fact that Hinrich just can't seem to stay healthy, give the Pacers a slight edge.
Coaches -- Frank Vogel vs. Tom Thibodeau
Two of the top coaches in the league -- their styles appear to mirror one another. They have a lot of respect for what the other has accomplished. Both coaches want to win with defense and are constantly preaching about fundamentals and doing things the right way. They both appear to have respect from their players and have carved a niche for themselves in the league through their success. Thibodeau managed to squeeze 45 regular season wins and get the Bulls to the second round of the playoffs with a team that was playing without Rose, Deng (illness) and Hinrich (calf) so he gets a slight edge here.
The Pacers would appear to have a small edge on paper but with Thibodeau at the helm, and Rose on the way back, it's going to be very interesting to see how these two teams fare against each other in the future. What will be just as intriguing is how both organizations decide to organize their respective payrolls moving forward with tighter salary cap restrictions in place. With the amnesty hammer likely falling on the last year of Boozer's deal next summer and Deng and Hinrich's contracts coming off the books at the same time, the Bulls figure to have about $20 million left to spend on free agents and/or potential trade targets to pair with a core of Rose, Noah, Butler, Gibson and former first-round pick Nikola Mirotic if he decides to come over from Europe.
On the flip side, the Pacers also have several tough decisions to make given that George will likely sign a max extension after next season to go with the extension Hibbert signed last summer. Granger still has another year left on his deal worth over $14 million next season but he figures to be gone unless he wants to take a massive paycut. Stepehenson will be looking for a major payday of his own after next year when he becomes a restricted free agent while Hansbrough will be looking to cash in as a restricted free agent this summer. On top of all that, the Pacers aren't going to want to let West leave, but they may have a hard time finding the space to pay him given that he will likely also be looking for a multi-year extension.
Pacers executives Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard have the same kind of tough decisions to make that Forman and Bulls executive VP John Paxson have already started dealing with. They would like to keep their core in place but they only have so much cap space to accomplish their goals. Having seen a great chance to win a title slide by in 2010, the Bulls know first hand that championship windows aren't open forever. The Pacers would be wise to find a way to knock off the Heat this year, or try to do so before the contracts of George and Stephenson expire. There's only so much money to go around and once you hand a couple max or near max contracts, the core that has the ability to knock off LeBron James and Co. doesn't change much -- just ask the Bulls.
In the meantime, the Bulls will watch with interest to see what happens over the next few weeks and they'll continue to figure out ways to tweak a team that was standing in the Pacers' shoes just a couple short seasons ago. Now, instead of just trying to get past one team in Miami, the Bulls have to worry about getting past another one in the future that resides just a few hours away from them in Indianapolis.