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Thursday, December 22, 2011
Updated: December 25, 4:29 PM ET
Greatness within reach for the Bulls

By Michael Wilbon
ESPNChicago.com

The encore has to be more difficult, right?

You don't just order up a season better than one that produced the league's best record, its Most Valuable Player and its best coach. Unlike opening day a year ago, the Chicago Bulls are big whoop now, no longer able to operate for stretches of time under the radar. They have notice this time, the withering defense, the uncommon depth, the superstar throwback who takes blame but not credit.

Bulls
With Rip Hamilton coming to Chicago, the Bulls add a fourth member to their own Big 3.

It makes sense -- in a world where a single unexpectedly good season often leads to presumption and self-absorption, then to backsliding -- that the Bulls just might take a step in the wrong direction this season; except that on the eve of the franchise's most anticipated season opener in 14 years there's not a single poser or slacker or fool or knucklehead in the bunch. They appear more purposeful and dutiful than last season. They're still doing what the coach tells them to do, still deferring to the ego-less 23-year-old superstar, still coming to work every day like an ambitious high school sophomore trying to make the varsity.

And that is why there can indeed be an encore. Yes, the Bulls can be better this year than last. It's not just that they brought back all the players of consequence, but that Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, Omer Asik and the MVP, Derrick Rose, are all 26 or younger and each should be a better player this season than last. Rose, improbable as it sounds, may make the biggest jump of all because he's willing to expand his game and his role while paying little if any attention to the traditional trappings of superstardom. Rose wants to be a better passer, to increase his assists, to be a better leader. So he will.

In a league in which half the players find coaching equal to criticism, Rose is happy to hear Tom Thibodeau tell reporters of one place he can/will improve.

"Sometimes you beat 'em with the shot, sometimes you beat 'em with the pass. Any time there's two on the ball there should be easy offense," Thibodeau recently said of Rose when he's facing double teams.

To help Rose take that next step, the Bulls made probably the most significant move any good team made after the lockout when they acquired Rip Hamilton, giving Rose the person who will help "beat 'em with the pass." It took two minutes of watching Hamilton in the preseason to realize he's perfect for what the Bulls do, what they need.

As Thibs reminded reporters of Hamilton, "he's seen every defense there is and he knows where the holes in most defenses are."

Hamilton's great in transition, in large part because he can run your fool head off, and once he beats you down the court, he can finish. Hamilton can create shots for others and is probably the second-best passer on a team that has Noah and Carlos Boozer, which is saying something. Having a polished offensive player makes it easier on Rose, Deng, Boozer and even Kyle Korver. It's like adding a 15-game winner to a pitching staff; everybody else can breathe a sigh of relief and settle back into a spot more conducive to the team's success. Rose simply shouldn't average 25 points this season. His scoring should drop to, say, 21 points per game or so and his assists should rise, to something like 9-plus per game.

Joakim Noah
Center Joakim Noah is one of several building blocks on the Bulls' roster.

The Bulls' starting lineup, with Hamilton in it and Rose looking to distribute the ball a bit more, is more complete than that of the Heat or the Knicks, and more athletic than that of the Mavericks or Lakers.

And let's face it; this entire season for the Bulls (and probably the next three or four) is about staying ahead of the Celtics, Knicks, Pacers and 76ers, and catching or pulling ahead of Miami. It's Pistons-Bulls from the 1980s/90s all over again, and yes, it's likely to be that difficult to break through. (Remember, the Jordan-Pippen Bulls lost to Detroit three consecutive years in the playoffs.)

That doesn't mean they're facing a similar fate with Miami. The compressed season is going to tax the Heat in a way that should reward the Bulls' depth. Most coaches simply don't trust more than seven or eight players. Mike D'Antoni, for one, is going to have to adopt an entirely new approach to the way he plays his reserves or Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony, neither a spring chicken, will burn out before the playoffs. Health could be the No. 1 factor in how the league shakes out. Keeping his starters rested shouldn't take any major adjustment, although Thibs is going to have to watch the minutes he plays Rose and Deng.

"Last year we played 10; we're gonna do the same thing this year," he said this week. "Virtually every time the bench was given extended minutes they responded."

The bench, at least to start the season, probably isn't the biggest area of concern. That would be Boozer, who during the playoffs was a disappointment to say the least. But the notion that the Bulls should use their amnesty clause on Boozer was absurd. He needs to get back to his usual form, not get out of Chicago. Boozer showed up for camp in much better shape than a year ago, is healthier than he was at any time last season, and begins this season knowing that playing for Thibs isn't a whole lot different than playing all those years for Jerry Sloan. Being pushed by Gibson, a superior defender, every day isn't a bad thing for Boozer either.

Derrick Rose
Derrick Rose and the Bulls will likely have to get through Dwyane Wade's Heat to make the Finals.

Of course, every up-and-comer struggles initially with expectations, their own and those of outsiders. Thibs is trying his best to cut this off at the pass. He's telling his team repeatedly, "This year's team is going to be different. Last year has nothing to do with this year. We have to reestablish who we are." To that end he also is constantly reminding his players they cannot "jump ahead" to the playoffs, a legitimate worry when a team has gotten so close to playing for a championship and would love nothing better than another chance to replay that conference finals series with Miami.

Presuming relative health, a preposterous supposition now more than ever, the Bulls can play their way into that chance again. The temperaments of Rose, Thibs, Noah and Hamilton fit the underdog role much better than being the favorite, which the Bulls were when the postseason began. This season, as it begins, is going to be tilted toward Miami -- whether the Heat can win 50 of 66 games, whether LeBron and Wade have figured out what to do in fourth quarters. The Bulls, in terms of league-wide attention, will be back in the pack, behind the improved but still overrated Knicks, the battle for Los Angeles, perhaps even the storyline of whether the Mavericks can repeat.

But back-in-the-pack in terms of attention suits this Bulls team, the better to play with the proverbial chip on the shoulder, the better to play with the same kind of nightly purpose that characterized last season and will be necessary to dethrone Miami in the Eastern Conference. For the first time since the last Michael Jordan-Phil Jackson-Scottie Pippen team of 1998, the Bulls begin an NBA season with greatness within their reach.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can email him here and follow him on Twitter @RealMikeWilbon.