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Watching the Bulls' extended, high-profile team introductions for their season opener Tuesday night at the United Center, I kept thinking, "Wait, are these the starters, or what?" Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Andres Nocioni -- the very core of the team that was considered a contender for National Basketball Association Eastern Conference champion just a year and a half ago -- all began the season on the bench. Among the team's former elite, only Luol Deng managed to make the new starting lineup centered on top pick Derrick Rose. Nothing wrong with that. The Bulls won just 33 games last year, so changes needed to be made.
Yet there's considerable if not immense talent on this team, and the question is whether new coach Vinny Del Negro can find the same sort of chemistry to make it work that Scott Skiles found two seasons ago. They did in the opener, as Deng led the team with 21 points, and Gordon and Hinrich came off the bench to add 18 and 15. Rose pushed the pace throughout, leading to an 18-point advantage at the free-throw line in a 108-95 victory to bedevil, yes, Skiles, new coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bulls still don't have a man in the middle, unless Joakim Noah steps forward, meaning they'll still be a club that relies on chemistry and team play over size and skill, same as in recent years, good and bad. Yet there's talent here, if only they can get Gordon, Hinrich, Deng, and Nocioni to buy into it in a way they didn't last year. Add Rose to that mix and you're still lacking a center, but there's ability enough to trouble the best teams. Look for the Bulls to be erratic but--it says here--to make the playoffs.