Anything less must be considered a disappointment.
Call me crazy for having such lofty expectations for a team that will be without superstar Derrick Rose and will feature a fresh new bench. But the Windy City has put up with too many rebuilding years since the Michael Jordan era ended, and the Bulls are not about to stoop back down to that stage after piecing together a unit that led the NBA in wins the past two seasons.
This season will not end with the Bulls hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy. That much is clear. The Bulls have too many holes on offense to win in the postseason, and even though it may sound pessimistic, Rose will not come back and be the savior that carries the Bulls past the Miami Heat and into the NBA Finals.
But Chicago is built for success in the regular season because of a unique triple threat in today's NBA culture: coaching, depth and defense.
The NBA may be filled with big egos, but luckily for the Bulls, their roster is filled with down-to-earth, team-first players. Head coach Tom Thibodeau is clearly the man in charge, which may not be the case for other coaches around the league dealing with arrogant superstars (see Erik Spoelstra).
Thibs gets more out of his players than perhaps any other coach in the league. He helped the Bulls develop a deep core with the fan-favorite Bench Mob, and he was able to play a 10-man rotation nearly every game.
When the Bulls dealt with injuries, which nearly every team did in last year's lockout-shortened campaign, they had the depth to fill holes in the starting rotation. Although Chicago lost an essential piece off the bench in Omer Asik, the team brought in veteran players who could play similar supporting roles, such as Kirk Hinrich, Vladimir Radmanovic and Nazr Mohammed.
Most important to the Bulls' success, and what separates them from every other team in the Central Division, is defense. Asik was a major cog in Chicago's defensive attack, and he will be a difficult piece to replace. But Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson are some of the best defensive players in the NBA, and with Rose out, this trio will not allow the Bulls to fall out of the top five in points allowed per game.
Chicago has waited far too long for a legitimate contender since Jordan retired. The front office has done a great job building the Bulls into a powerful squad the past two seasons, and the team cannot let an injury to its best player derail its course to success.
This season is a golden opportunity for Rose's supporting cast. Expectations are relatively low for this unit, but the remaining core has a chance to prove to the rest of the league that they could still contend in the East.
On top of that, the East and the Central are lacking in contenders. While the Miami Heat will likely cruise to a third-straight trip to the NBA Finals, a number of teams will be jostling for position in the conference standings.
With Rose healthy, the Bulls are the clear-cut No. 2 squad in the East. Without him, not much separates the Bulls from the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks. It's possible that these teams could finish second through seventh in the conference and only be separated by five games or less in the standings.
The Bulls also have extra large chips on their shoulders after arguably the most disappointing playoff exit in franchise history. With Thibs at the helm, and with Noah, Deng and Gibson providing the intensity and leadership on the court, the Bulls have as good a chance as any of the aforementioned squads to finish among the top-four teams in the East.
Resorting back to mediocrity is not an option for Chicago in 2012-13. Not having Rose is an easy excuse to fall back on, but there is no way that Thibodeau and his tough-minded Bulls squad will use that excuse for any hiccups during the season.
With success comes great expectations. The Bulls have been successful the past two regular seasons, so expecting another solid 82-game campaign is a realistic expectation.
The path to an NBA title is a long and winding road. Chicago may not get close to a championship this season, but earning a top-four seed and winning a playoff series with the uncertain future of Rose is a major stride towards the team's ultimate goal.
A strong season will give the Bulls' supporting cast even more confidence when Rose returns to full health. That motivation could make Chicago a solid title contender once again in 2013-14.
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