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Ten questions facing the Bulls as training camp opens

So what are the big issues surrounding one of the teams with the most question marks -- and apparently lacking exclamation points -- this season?
In the absence of Derrick Rose, the veterans Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, and Carlos Boozer will be heavily relied upon
Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

NBA training camps open Monday for the 2012-13 season, one with experienced officials and a full season schedule. Boring, eh?

How about the NBA being the conventional, conservative league? Likely not for long, as we know from long experience.

Any day now Dwight Howard may declare his love for Orlando and desire to return as a free agent. Hey, stupider stuff has happened. There’ll be much to discuss about the Lakers, Heat, Ray Allen’s departure from Boston and the Nets’ embrace of Brooklyn. You know, of course, the last team there was known as the “bums.” It seems the Nets got a start on that welcome from New Jersey fans last season.

The USA team returns with gold medals. But will it also be tired legs? I haven’t checked lately. But it seems LeBron James is popular again. And Kenyon Martin still isn’t.

But what about the Midwest’s team? No, not the Bucks. It’s the Bulls, who two seasons ago surprised many making the conference finals and last season surprised even more not passing the first round.

So what are the big issues surrounding one of the teams with the most question marks — and apparently lacking exclamation points — this season?

1. Yes, Derrick Rose.

I have a feeling we’re going to tire of this quickly. The Bulls may have already. Everyone is anxious for the return of the team’s star and darling. But it’s at least a half season away, for sure. There’s no replacing a league MVP. So many faux experts may not even have the Bulls making the playoffs. I have them 47-35 for now, though I expect that could change when I actually see someone bounce a ball. The general hope is Rose can return in February (halfway between that eight to 12 months estimate), and then the issue will be for how long per game, how hard and wearing which sneaker model? No one knows that yet. I suspect the Bulls will answer their Rose questions Monday on media day and then not say much until he’s ready to return. There will thus be much uninformed speculation the next four months. I’m looking for Rose to be listed as day-to-day until March. My guess, actually, is the countdown begins around All-Star break. I have this reliably from league sources who may or may not know.

2. Then how the heck are they going to score?

Those are not boos you are hearing. They are chanting “Booz” for Carlos Boozer. The Bulls can only hope. This is a big season for the player fans most love to trade. And I think it could be a pretty good one. With Rose out, the Bulls don’t really have a player who can break down the defense on his own. This will be team play more than ever. I suspect, as a result, they’ll play through Boozer more, thus giving Boozer the most offensive opportunities since he came to the Bulls. I also think there will be more perimeter shooting this season with the additions of Marco Belinelli, Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson and Vladimir Radmanovic, which could benefit Boozer by spacing the court better. I can see the Bulls playing more slowly without Rose to keep the games close and rely on their Tom Thibodeau inspired defense to offset the lack of offense.

3. So what about Thibodeau’s contract?

It may get done. Unless it doesn’t. I don’t think it will affect this season. Thibodeau would like an extension and the Bulls would like to give him one. I do think they eventually agree, but I can’t say when. Thibodeau has one year remaining on his rookie deal. Some top coaches, like Rick Carlisle and Scott Brooks, coached out their contracts last season, became free agents and then resigned. I don’t think either side wants to let it get that far. But I doubt it will change Thibodeau’s approach to the game. He’s got too much pride for that. I know we joke about his work schedule, but it is amazing. He didn’t take a vacation this summer and basically has been preparing for the season the last four months. I did hear he had lunch one day. The Bulls will again be better than their talent because Thibodeau is an elite coach.

4. So who’s the surprise?

There could be many, especially with so many new faces. I see Taj Gibson having a big season. I expect he’ll play a lot of backup center with small ball going around with Miami looking at Chris Bosh as their center and Kevin Garnett the center in Boston. Though he’s a bit on the, let’s say, idiosyncratic side, Nate Robinson could be a fan favorite and hit some big shots. Of course, he also has a bit of Ron Artest’s shot selection. Thibs should enjoy that. Jimmy Butler should get a spot in the rotation. But my surprise is Radmanovic. He’s been labeled somewhat disinterested and enigmatic, which is nicer than when Phil Jackson said he was a space cadet. But he’s a 6-10 shooter who beat the Bulls with a shot last season, can play the new stretch four position and also small forward, and is the kind of shooter Thibodeau likes. I can see him playing with Luol Deng and Belinelli to really open the floor. And few coaches get players to respond better than Thibodeau. Although the so called Bench Mob of reserves last season had wonderful chemistry, it’s not a bad thing to get a new group coming into Boot Camp Thibodeau and trying to impress.

5. So who’ll be the rock, the team’s anchor?

Obviously, the veterans Deng, Joakim Noah and Boozer will be relied upon. But the team’s most important player may be returnee Kirk Hinrich. The seven-year Bull bounced around with Washington and Atlanta the last two seasons amid injuries and, especially, little use in Atlanta. But at 31, he’s hardly done. In fact, those who have worked out with him this summer say he’s in as good shape and as motivated as any time in his career. He could produce a big comeback season. And the Bulls will need it. He’s the only true point guard on the roster. Robinson is his backup, but isn’t exactly an offensive organizer. It’s why when the Bulls add someone perhaps a month into the season, I can see it being a point guard, maybe someone like free agents Jannero Pargo or Marko Jaric over a big man. Otherwise, they’ll need to have Hinrich have his healthiest season. If the NBA still had a comeback player award, he could get it.

6. What about honors?

After MVP, coach of the year and All-Stars, what will this season produce? Taj Gibson Sixth Man of the Year? Although the Bulls added Nazr Mohammed as a backup center with the loss of Omer Asik, I can see Gibson getting more of the backup center minutes. After all, he is the team’s best returning per minute shot blocker (Asik led per minute last season). Gibson averaged just 20.4 minutes per game last season. He should get close to 30 this season backing up Boozer and Noah. I see Mohammed more in the Kurt Thomas when-needed role.

7. Any other Sixth Man candidates from the new group?

Actually, Belinelli could surprise, though not NBA people. He’s a very good shooter. He’s not as good as Kyle Korver. But he’s more athletic and better able to put the ball on the floor. He’ll battle Richard Hamilton for minutes. Many wrote off Hamilton last season with injuries. But he’s supposedly had a very good summer after clearly not being that ready to start last season. He’s a potential free agent and doesn’t see himself being done. And Thibodeau and he have talked many times this summer. Hamilton still is in great condition, passes well and could adopt a stronger leadership position with Rose out. With he and Belinelli, shooting guard could be a solid position.

8. Any All-Stars?

Well, Deng has established himself after being an All-Star last season and all-defense. Yes, Andrew Bynum is a big addition to the Eastern Conference, but watch out for Kareem Abdul-Noah. Or at least watch. The great Abdul-Jabbar told Bulls people at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in September he’d been working with Noah this summer and Noah was making sky hooks. Now that we have to see. We don’t think Noah has changed his shooting style. And a slower, half court game is not his style. But if he can be a threat at all on offense, who knows. How do you say sky hook in French?

9. What about Deng’s wrist?

What wrist? All that talk about Deng and surgery seems to have dissipated. Deng went through the Olympics unscathed and then attended NBA camps and activities in Africa. He’s been back at the Berto Center working out and seems motivated for the season as the leader minus Rose. The feeling now is Deng may not even have surgery, and if he eventually does it may be more to only ward off future discomfort. Deng has indicated to the Bulls if he has surgery he expects it will be the summer of 2013.

10. What about the rookie, Marquis Teague?

He may want to call Scalabrine and find which seat at the end of the bench is most comfortable. Rookies don’t play much in Chicago, and at 19 it’s not likely Teague will contribute much this season other than in an emergency situation and getting John Calipari tickets. He is a talent and should be able to stay in shape lifting the bags on and off the plane and bringing the donuts in the morning.

Take your time, Derrick. Get really ready, and then who knows?

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