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Bulls still believe with Rose out

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CHICAGO – No Derrick Rose. No hope.

Many people outside the Bulls organization, from NBA pundits to some fans, believe the 2012 season is a lost year with Rose sidelined indefinitely as he rehabilitates from surgery to repair the ACL in his left knee. But the Bulls are refusing to concede or buy into that mentality.

Their mission to prove the doubters wrong begins at the United Center at 7 tonight against the Sacramento Kings.

“I think the sky’s the limit,” forward Taj Gibson said. “I think with the right mindset, the way we practice, the way we played in the preseason, everything is coming together right.

“I know we’ve got a lot of talent. I’m looking forward to shocking the world.”

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau emphasized that it’s a new season and a new beginning – last year’s hopes and disappointment must be left in the past.

“We’re a group that everybody is going to have to contribute,” center Joakim Noah said. “With Derrick out, guys have to probably contribute more offensively, definitely more shots out there. It’s on everybody to step up and hold the fort down until he comes back.”

While the Bulls try to find a rhythm with six new players on the roster, they benefit from playing six of their first seven games at home. Starting strong would go a long way in eliminating some of the uncertainty surrounding the Bulls.

“We still have to go out and play,” forward Carlos Boozer said. “Just cause you’re at home doesn’t guarantee anything. ... Our fans will be going crazy because we have the best fans, so we’ll get the best supporters.”

Thibodeau expects any win to be hard fought in what he described as a much-improved Eastern Conference. They’ll have to overcome the obvious front-runners, which include the Miami Heat, the defending champs, Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers. However, the Bulls boast veteran experience and a strong core of Boozer, Noah, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich. While 3-point shooting wasn’t a strong point during the preseason, the Bulls’ will rely on strong post play.

Hinrich (groin) is expected to start tonight against the Kings as long as he doesn’t suffer any setbacks before the game. The Bulls need Hinrich to stay healthy to lessen the impact of Rose’s absence.

“He went through two full practices and he didn’t have any problems so he should be fine,” Thibodeau said.

Gibson talks to go the wire: Time is quickly becoming the enemy for the Bulls and forward Taj Gibson.

Gibson and the Bulls have not agreed to a contract extension, although the organization is continuing to negotiate and work out a deal with Gibson's agent Mark Bartelstein before tonight's deadline at midnight. If Gibson, who is entering his fourth season in the NBA, does not sign an extension before the deadline, he will be a restricted free agent next summer.

"I have to wait and see," Gibson said. "They've had good talks. Hopefully get something done so I can just focus on basketball. ... Other people are more focused on it than me."

One positive for the Bulls is that should Gibson not sign, teams won't be able to offer him a back-loaded contract – similar to the Houston Rockets' strategy and subsequent signing of Omer Asik – to make it difficult for them to match because Gibson qualifies for the Larry Bird exception.

Gibson said he shuts off his cell phone whenever he's at home to prevent distractions and prevent people calling him to ask about his contract situation. But no worries, his agent found a way to keep him in the loop.

"The majority of the time my agent just pops up at my house at like 6 in the morning with McDonalds, and he's like, 'We have to go over this,' " Gibson said. " ...Every morning it's something new, but it's a blessing to be in this position. Not many people can say they have a chance to get an extension from a great team like the Chicago Bulls. I'm just taking it in stride."

In the three seasons since the Bulls drafted Gibson with their 26th pick in the first round of the 2009 draft, he's averaging 23.2 minutes a game, shooting 48.5 percent.


FIVE QUESTIONS THE BULLS FACE ENTERING THE SEASON

1. When will Derrick Rose return? As Rose continues rehabbing after surgery to repair his anterior cruciate ligament, it’s impossible to know when he will return to the court. Rose still must prove he can make basketball moves, such as cutting, before he can practice. Nobody in the Bulls’ organization, Rose included, knows when he’ll be healthy enough to play, and there remains no timetable for when he will be back in the lineup. The Bulls must move forward under the assumption Rose might not return until the end of the season or playoffs.

2. Who will pick up the scoring during Rose’s absence? Rose averaged a team-high 21.8 points a game last season, and no other player averaged more than 20 points a game. Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer posted 15.3 and 15.0 points a game, respectively, and that must change this season. They must take on more of the scoring load, but their teammates also will be expected to step up. It’ll take a total team effort to try to replace what Rose brought offensively.

3. Can their core players stay healthy? While the Bulls’ starting lineup features plenty of veterans, injuries are a concern. Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton especially have struggled to stay on the court the past couple seasons. The Bulls’ core must avoid major injuries to prevent a disappointing season.
4. Will the retooled bench thrive?
Taj Gibson is the lone returnee of the fabled Bulls’ bench mob, and with so many fresh faces on the second unit, chemistry is key. The Bulls believe the bench, led by Gibson, Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed, will produce on both ends of the floor and create much-needed depth.
5. Can the Bulls contend for the NBA title?
The goal hasn’t changed for the Bulls despite likely being without Rose most of the season. The roster features plenty of experience while the starters have good chemistry with one another. However, the improvements made by the Heat and Lakers, and with the Celtics and Pacers ahead of them in the Eastern Conference, certainly present challenges. The Bulls’ focus remains on making the playoffs with the hope that Rose will be playing by the start of the playoffs. If that happens, they could be capable of pulling off a postseason run.

FIVE BULLS GAMES TO WATCH

1. Bulls vs. Sacramento Kings, season opener today
Everyone finally gets a true look at the Bulls and their revamped roster. Kirk Hinrich (groin) is expected to start.

2. Bulls vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, Nov. 8 Their game against the Thunder represents the Bulls' first true challenge of the season by facing the reigning West Conference champions.

3. Bulls at Miami Heat, Jan. 4 In the teams' first meeting of the season, the Bulls will find out how they stack up against the defending NBA champs. Should be entertaining even without Derrick Rose on the court.

4. Bulls vs. Los Angeles Lakers, Jan. 21 This game marks the Bulls' first of two meetings against the superstar-studded Lakers.

5. Bulls vs. Indiana Pacers, March 23 Their final regular-season meeting could hold playoff implications between the Central Division foes.

Projected starting lineup (2012 regular-season statistics)

• PG Kirk Hinrich (48 games played, 25.8 minutes, 41.4 field goal percentage, 2.8 assists, 6.6 points)

• SG Richard Hamilton (28 games played, 24.9 minutes, 45.2 field goal percentage, 3.0 assists, 11.6 points)

• SF Luol Deng (54 games played, 39.4 minutes, 41.2 field goal percentage, 2.9 assists, 15.3 points)

• PF Carlos Boozer (66 games played, 29.5 minutes, 53.2 field goal percentage, 8.5 rebounds, 15.0 points)

• C Joakim Noah (64 games played, 30.4 minutes, 50.8 field goal percentage, 9.8 rebounds, 10.2 points)

Key players off the bench

• F Taj Gibson (63 games played, 20.4 minutes, 49.5 field goal percentage, 5.2 rebounds, 7.7 points)

• G Nate Robinson (51 games played, 23.4 minutes, 42.4 field goal percentage, 4.5 assists, 11.2 points)

• C Nazr Mohammed (63 games played, 11.0 minutes, 46.7 field goal percentage, 2.7 rebounds, 2.7 points)

• G Marco Belinelli (66 games played, 29.8 minutes, 41.7 field goal percentage, 2.6 rebounds, 11.8 points)

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