For NBA teams, media day is typically the most optimistic event of the season, but the Bulls have been an exception to the rule the last two years.
Entering the 2012-13 campaign, there was a feeling that the best was yet to come, given superstar Derrick Rose’s ACL injury, though many believed the former league MVP would be back at some point during the season, meaning that brighter days were ahead. Of course, that never occurred and while the injury-riddled squad experienced many exciting moments, with Rose’s situation looming over the team, it was as similar to cloudy weather, not knowing if it would eventually become sunny or rain would fall.
After Rose’s nearly year-and-a-half absence since his April 2012 injury in the opening game of the Bulls’ first-round playoff series against Philadelphia, all indications suggest that the Chicago native will be back on the court in a week for the team’s Oct. 5 preseason opener and upon that premise, as well as the notion that the point guard will gradually regain his elite form, the Bulls are expected to compete for a championship. Friday at the Berto Center, there was a mix of embracing their title-contender status and downplaying pundits’ predictions.
“To me, the pressure of expectations are really a privilege and to me, talking about it doesn’t do any good. If you went to all 30 camps, everybody’s saying the same things. It’s your willingness to work and make a commitment, and you evaluate yourself, whether you’re putting forth a championship-caliber effort each and every day, and if you’ve built those habits over the course of the season,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Do you have the discipline to do that? Do you have the ability to concentrate over a long period of time? Those are some of the winning characteristics that it does take and it takes a strong commitment to play for each other, and hopefully we have that. But to talk about it, that doesn’t do any good. I think you’ve just got to put the work into it. I think that’s the most important thing and last season, we were probably undersold and maybe this season we’re being oversold, but none of that matters. What matters is are we willing to put the work in each and every day?
“I think you go into every season with the approach that we’re not going to look ahead to next year. We’re not going to look behind to what happened last year. The challenge for all of us is to lock into this year and as you mentioned, the improvement of the East, in particular our division, and then when you break it down further and you look at the importance of having a great training camp to be prepared for the start of the season, that’s what I want us locked in on."
While it’s been speculated throughout the offseason that Thibodeau and Bulls general manager Gar Forman aren’t on the same page, Forman separately concurred with the coach’s thought process about the team’s mentality.
“I don’t think this team is going to look that far ahead. I really do think from the type of makeup and character our guys have to the culture that’s being created, our guys look at the next day. There’s been an emphasis on trying to get better each and every day. Every season is new,” he said. “We have a group that’s been together for the most part for several years. But that doesn’t mean anything. They know they have to pave their way this year. I don’t worry about it. I think we have some strong-minded guys. When we hit obstacles, I think they’ve shown they can fight through any obstacle we have.”
This season could be the Chicago swan song for Luol Deng, the Bulls’ longest-tenured player, as his representatives have stated that the All-Star small forward will enter free agency next summer after contract-extension negotiations with Forman broke down over the summer entering the final year of the South Sudan native’s current deal. In a tongue-in-cheek fashion, Deng slightly dampened the enthusiasm surrounding the team’s prospects, adding a dose of realism, yet acknowledging its potential.
“Not trying to be a down guy here, but it always sounds good in the beginning. When you put names together it always sounds good. Character-wise, it’s something that’s overlooked. We have great guys in the locker room. These guys are very unselfish guys. We have a lot of familiar faces. The biggest thing I’m excited for is having Derrick back but also having Kirk [Hinrich] come in when Derrick is out. Kirk is underrataed in terms of how he runs the team. Last year, he did a great job of getting us going. Our record was a lot better when he played. It’s just going to make us a lot better. When Derrick does get his rest, we won’t miss a beat with a guy like Kirk coming in and running the team,” he explained.
“Everybody is putting us up there and expecting a lot. I can’t sit here and say, ‘Yes, we’re going to win the championship or we’re not.’ It’s all about the work that we put in. In terms of the guys, it seems like a great group of guys in terms of being on one page. The core is on one page and understands the time to win is now. We believe we can do it. We’re all tuned in and on the same page as far as being unselfish and being on the same team. We showed what we could do without Derrick. Now you add him to it, that’s why the expectations are high.”
Conversely, fellow All-Star Joakim Noah, known for being a bit more forthright in his convictions, took the opposite approach.
“I’m always pretty excited at this time of the year, but I think that everybody, the whole city, there’s a feel about this year that’s special. Obviously, we didn’t play with our best player last year, probably the most exciting player in the whole NBA, so him coming back is a big deal in itself,” the center said. “I feel healthy, I’m hungry for this year. I think this is our year that we get over that hump and we do it. As a basketball player, it doesn’t get better than that, just to feel healthy and to be ready to go.”
For the hopes of Noah and outside observers to be justified, the onus will be on Rose to play at a superstar level, as previously mentioned, and for his teammates to remain capable of helping him shoulder the burden, as they showed they could do during his absence, in which the Bulls advanced to the second round of the playoffs and won over admirers with their determination. For his part, Rose didn’t shy away from questions about the Bulls’ ability to reach their ultimate goal.
“I think we’re pretty good. We added Jimmy [Butler to the starting lineup]. He came out to L.A. to work out with me for about a week. Surprised me ... I think we have a great nucleus, but at the same time it just takes us going out there and having that chemistry, believing in ourselves that we can win the title,” he said. “I think we have the right pieces.
“The thing that drives me is just winning a championship. I think that’s the only thing on my resume that I’m missing is a championship. This is a great time to do it, where everybody is watching. It’s the biggest stage that you can possibly play on, and my teammates are preparing themselves for a big year and I am, too. It should be a crazy, magical year where I know there will be a lot of people watching, and it should be exciting to the Bulls’ fans.”