Apr 28, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bulls injured point guard Derrick Rose (1) is helped off the court by medical staff during the fourth quarter in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers at the United Center. The Bulls won 103-91. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE

Are The Chicago Bulls Still Contenders In The Eastern Conference?

When former league MVP Derrick Rose tore his ACL in his left knee in Game 1 of the first round of the NBA playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers this past season, the hearts of all Chicago Bulls fans collectively sank in unison.

Rose was going to be gone for the foreseeable future. ACL tears don’t magically heal overnight.

He had his surgery performed on May 12, 2012. The predicted healing time for his injury was estimated at anywhere from 8-12 months. Rose could be back as early as Christmas day, but a more reasonable assumption is sometime in March.

We all saw what losing Derrick Rose did to the Bulls confidence in last years playoffs. Taking away the teams bonafide leader and clear-cut best player left Chicago in a state of disarray that they couldn’t pick themselves back up from.

The team experienced what life would be like sans Rose during the regular season when Derrick was held to playing just 39 total games due to injury. The Bulls still managed to win 50 games in the very competitive Eastern Conference despite not having Rose for a majority of of the year.

The players knew though that Derrick could return at any moment. The belief was that if they held down the fort in the Central Division long enough for Rose to return, they could still make a legitimate run at an NBA Championship when the playoffs rolled around.

Once Rose went down in game 1, their hopes and dreams of championship glory in 2012 we’re ripped away from them in a flash.

That was all she wrote. The 76ers saw an opening and took advantage of it, becoming only the 5th bottom-seeded team to eliminate the best regular season team in the conference.

Now with Derrick Rose out until possibly March, it’s hard to say whether or not the emotional fatigue of losing him will transfer  over into the 2012/13 season.

On top of that, the Bulls management appears to haven given up all hope of an NBA Championship this coming year. The roster has undergone a major overhaul this summer, with many players who had prominent roles on the team last year now donning new uniforms for their new teams.

C.J Watson has joined the Brooklyn Nets, John Lucas III was released and eventually signed on with Toronto, sharpshooter Kyle Korver was dealt to Atlanta, Ronnie Brewer has become a Knick and the “Turkish Hammer” Omer Asik had his offer sheet unmatched, leaving him free to join the Houston Rockets.

Mike James and Brian Scalabrine were also released by the Bulls as well.

To replace their second-unit, Chicago brought on a slew of veteran players in Nazr Mohammed, Nate Robinson, Kirk Hinrich, Marco Belinelli and Vladimir Radmanovic with hopes of duplicating the success of last years “Bench Mob“.

The team also used their 29th overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft to select Marquis Teague out of the University of Kentucky. Teague, Hinrich and Robinson will form a 3-man rotation at point guard until Derrick Rose returns.

After recently evaluating the Bulls current roster, former NBA head coach and current analyst Jeff Van Gundy gave his thoughts on Chicago’s chances in the Eastern Conference next season….

“To lose (Derrick) Rose by itself is going to cost you — even if you thought they were a 55-win team with Rose — that costs you 12-15 games right there. And then all the other guys I think people are overlooking. C.J. Watson even with his poor play to (Omer) Asik in that sixth game, listen, he was a very valuable back-up through all of Rose’s injuries last year. He played well, and now, who’s their backup, they have (Kirk) Hinrich and who? (Marquis Teague) No, no, he’s not … did you watch him in summer league? “Struggled” is being kind. That’s not a knock. The 29th pick in the draft is such a hit-and-miss selection anyway. You have to give him time to grow and mature. But to think he’s going to come in and play behind Hinrich next year …”

“So to think that’s a 50-win team … listen, if they win half their games next year and make the playoffs, it’s a heck of a year.”

Van Gundy’s criticisms of the team may be harsh, but he does have a point.

Derrick Rose is irreplaceable. Hinrich and Robinson are solid backup point guards, but I seriously doubt a majority of Bulls fans are going to have total confidence in either man running the teams offense for the long-term. It’s also still up in the air as to what kind of production a combo guard in Marquis Teague can offer this early in his career.

I’m sure the Bulls would love to have the Kirk Hinrich back that averaged 16.6 points and 6.2 assists for the team back in 2006-07, but a lot of time has passed and Kirk is not the same player he was back then. In fact, last season was Hinrich’s worst since entering the league back in 2003. He averaged just 6.6 points and 2.8 assists in a backup role for the Atlanta Hawks. With what’s being led on, Hinrich should be the opening day starter for the Chicago Bulls come November.

That’s a scary thought.

I haven’t even mentioned the fact that a majority of the Bulls returning starters are also plagued with injuries as well. Rip Hamilton played a lowly 28 games last season and first time all-star Luol Deng is currently playing in the 2012 Olympic games with a torn ligament in his left wrist and will more than likely have surgery once the games end. Joakim Noah is also recovering from an ankle injury he suffered in the first round against the 76ers as well.

If you take any team in the league and remove their best player as well as replace half of their roster, there is obviously going to be some growing pains. It’s a given with those circumstances.

Head Coach Tom Thibodeau has proven in the past that he can motivate talent and get the very best out of his players, but even this seems like too much of an insurmountable task.

I am in no way saying that the 2012-13 Chicago Bulls are going to be a horrible team, but to expect another 50+ win season may be pushing your luck. This roster has gone through too many changes on top of losing Rose to remain the #1 team in the Eastern Conference, at least during the regular season.

With their current talent pool, are they as good as the Miami Heat? Boston Celtics? Indiana Pacers? I certainly don’t think that they are.

The bottom-feeders of the East (Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets, Toronto Raptors, Milwaukee Bucks) have also made changes to their rosters this offseason that will make them more competitive in the near future. They are no longer the easy given wins that they once were.

I believe a 41-44 win season would be quite the accomplishment for the Bulls considering what they’ve endured in recent months. If the players can keep this team in playoff contention long enough for Rose to return late in the year, then I suppose anything is possible. It’s going to take Derrick quite a bit of time to get back to the explosive player he once was before this horrific injury, but never discount the heart of a champion (not literally of course).

Christopher Walder is a sports blogger and lead editor for Sir Charles in Charge. You may follow him on Twitter @WalderSports

Tags: Chicago Bulls Derrick Rose Eastern Conference Joakim Noah Kirk Hinrich Luol Deng Marquis Teague Miami Heat Nate Robinson NBA

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