Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy Jr. might not play for the Bulls, while Pistons guards Brandon Jennings and Rodney Stuckey are definitely out — with bizarre injuries, no less; a wisdom-tooth extraction and a thumb injury caused by slamming it in a car door, respectively — for Detroit for Wednesday night’s preseason game, but still, this has to be the season the rivalry between the Midwest rivals is revived, right?
The spotlight will be focused on former league MVP Derrick Rose, set to play his first game at the United Center since he tore his left ACL on April 28, 2012, with the slated season debut of All-Star center Joakim Noah as a subplot, but the revamped visitors will also want to make a positive impression in the Bulls’ exhibition home opener, proving that their offseason praise was a harbinger of good things to come.
Before an April loss last season, the Bulls had enjoyed an 18-game winning streak against their divisional foe, with Detroit’s last previous victory taking place in December of 2008 — some of the participants included the likes of then-Piston Rip Hamilton, ex-Bulls guard Larry Hughes, current Golden State Warriors assistant coach Lindsey Hunter, future Hall of Famer Allen Iverson, former Bulls fan favorite Andres Nocioni, Bulls lottery-pick bust Tyrus Thomas and new Detroit player-development coach Rasheed Wallace, all of whom are presently out of the NBA — during Rose’s Rookie of the Year campaign, also the last time the Pistons qualified for the postseason.
Chicago native Maurice Cheeks is the Pistons’ new head coach and with the acquisition of free-agent forward Josh Smith, Detroit is banking on the potential of their frontcourt — as well as the currently sidelined Jennings at point guard — to end the franchise’s playoff drought. The athletic, versatile Smith will start at small forward, arguably not his best position, next to fellow underrated southpaw Greg Monroe, who was moved to his natural position of power forward to make room for powerfully explosive second-year center Andre Drummond.
Along with another Rust Belt divisional opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers, the potentially improved Pistons had perhaps the busiest summer of any team in the Eastern Conference — not to short-change the already-good Pacers, who upgraded their bench significantly, but was already a conference contender — making the Central Division race more competitive than it’s been in the past few seasons.
“Yeah, and it’s not only those teams. Our entire division has gotten better and I think the East overall has gotten better, so you have to be ready for everybody in this league,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said, before launching into a familiar refrain. “There are no nights off. I know you guys think it’s different, but it’s not. Everyone in this league is capable of beating you and you have to develop the right habits, and prepare for each and every opponent. So you’ve got to be ready every night.”
As far as Wednesday’s matchup goes, regardless of who’s on the court, the coach wants the Bulls to continue to make progress with less than two weeks remaining before their Oct. 29 regular-season opener against the defending-champion Heat in Miami.
“Improvement,” Thibodeau said of his expectations for the team. “Right now, you’re building your foundation and the entire month is training camp. Each and every day, you have to get the entire team to get the entire team to put everything they have into it so the team can improve. You’re not getting an individual player ready, you’re getting the team ready and so everyone has to do their part.”
Thibodeau did concede that after the preseason opener at Indiana, a “home game” in St. Louis against the Memphis Grizzlies and a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where the Bulls faced the Washington Wizards, it’s nice to have a contest in Chicago.
“We always get great support here, but I think the important thing for us is not to think we can just rely on being home with our fans,” he said. “We have to play well, we have to give them something to cheer about. But we certainly appreciate all the support we do get here.”
Maintaining their undefeated preseason record would help, but simply having Rose back on the court at the United Center will likely be enough to satisfy much of the crowd.