Commentary

Bulls put title hopes on hiatus

With Derrick Rose injured, the team just cobbling together a passable roster

Updated: July 25, 2012, 8:56 AM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

DEERFIELD, Ill. -- It's not a secret the Chicago Bulls aren't gunning for a championship run this season. So maybe someone should fill in Marco Belinelli.

When Derrick Rose's ACL went at the end of their first playoff game last year, so too did the hopes for a seventh Larry O'Brien trophy. But I'm not sure the tight-lipped Bulls front office has informed their new guard of the new reality.

"When the Bulls called me, I was so happy because Chicago is the team that can maybe win the championship and I can play with a star like Derrick Rose," he said at his introduction Tuesday at the Berto Center.

OK, now replace "star like Derrick Rose" with "grinder like Kirk Hinrich" and "championship" for "first-round exit."

Something might have been lost in translation with the 6-foot-5 Italian 2-guard. I bet the crafty Tom Thibodeau can say "game-time decision"and "we've got more than enough to win" in all of the romance languages.

With Rose out and the Bench Mob exiled, the Bulls are in NBA limbo this year. Sure, the Bulls can make the playoffs. So could Simeon Career Academy.

[+] EnlargeMarco Belinelli
Layne Murdoch/Getty ImagesMarco Belinelli will be called upon to replace Omer Asik for the Bulls next season.

Whether he knows it or not, Belinelli and his fellow additions are just short-term rentals. Don't go buying Bench Mob shirts with their names.

Thibodeau, who is still looking for his contract extension, is too good of a coach for the team to completely collapse until Rose returns, and I think there's an outside chance the Bulls could put together a decent run with Rose out. I don't say that in public too often for risk of scorn.

But after two years of raised expectations, it's tough to get excited about this team, especially if you haven't erased the first-round playoff loss to Philadelphia from your mind.

Depth and defense are a concern. Everyone loved the Bench Mob. They're all gone, except for the best Bench Mobber of all, Taj Gibson, and in their stead are Belinelli, "stretch four" Vladimir Radmanovic, center Nazr Mohammed (who took his physical at the Berto on Tuesday), draft pick Marquis Teague and second-year guard Jimmy Butler.

Can those guys match the comfort created by continuity of the old group? Doubtful. Radmanovic can shoot, much like Carlos Boozer, but he's a guy Phil Jackson called "a space cadet" and "my favorite Martian." Hinrich, who played with Radmanovic in Atlanta, said he's a better athlete than people give him credit for. Hinrich probably feels that way about himself, too.

Hinrich, who knows the "business" of basketball, is just happy to be home. John Paxson's first draft pick back in 2003, the 31-year-old combo guard has seen the franchise rise from the depths, plateau and rise again. Unfortunately for him, he was traded to make financial room for the free agent rush of 2010. Now he's back and the team is a mid-range playoff team again.

Bulls general manager Gar Forman kept one tradition from the Vinny Del Negro era alive by referring to Hinrich as "Kurt" in his introductions. When asked if Thibodeau was calling him by the right name, Hinrich laughed and said, "So far."

Unhappy Bulls fans might have other names to call Hinrich.

While some fans weren't exactly clamoring for Hinrich's return, he can provide a very valuable role for this team, running the point in Rose's absence, mentoring another Teague brother in draft pick Marquis (Jeff Teague leapfrogged Hinrich in Atlanta) and playing solid perimeter defense.

"When we're completely healthy, I think we're a very, very good team," he said. "As of right now, I feel like nobody's giving us much of a chance. Everybody's kind of counting us out since Derrick's been out and probably deservedly so, because he's one of the top players in the league. I have a lot of confidence in the guys here. We're going to have a chance to win a lot of games just by the way we defend and way we play on both ends."

I would've loved to talk to Forman about the status of the team but he evaded contact with the media who trekked to the Berto Center to see Hinrich. We were informed there would be "another player" joining him, but the super-secretive team wouldn't even tell us it was Belinelli until he walked out to the practice court.

Belinelli thinks he's a more complete player than Kyle Korver, and noted that Thibodeau told him "he want me so bad." But I tried not to laugh when Belinelli admitted he's not so good on defense. That doesn't bode well if it's true.

"Defensive play is not my best," he said. "I think that I can play defense and it's one thing that can be better. I can be better, but if I play and I got confidence from other guys, I think I can do better stuff than other guys."

Defense is why the Bulls had the best record over the last two regular seasons. And one of the big reasons why is gone. Earlier in the day, the Bulls officially announced they weren't matching Houston's $25 million offer sheet for center Omer Asik. The veteran from Chicago, Mohammed, is expected to replace him.

While he didn't talk to the press contingent, Forman told Sam Smith on the team's website: "Matching the offer for Omer could have put us in a difficult position going forward in trying to acquire high-level talent."

Asik would have had a $15 million salary cap hit in 2014-15. I was on the side for keeping Asik, even with the punitive new salary cap rules. While Asik's offensive foibles are well-known (he can't catch), he's a monster defensively, a true low-post isolation defender. There aren't a lot of 7-footers with his natural ability and he's only going to better. But with Joakim Noah around, it wouldn't make much sense to pay that much money to one position, even if Asik played over Noah in the fourth quarter sometimes.

Asik would've been a luxury if Rose were still around, but it's not tough to get the idea that with Rose hobbled, the team is settling for a respite from championship aspirations. As Hinrich said, the Bulls can definitely surprise some people this year. But no one is expecting too much.

Except maybe Belinelli. Can you keep this a secret from him?

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.