Bulls-Lakers Preview

A bizarre offseason for the Los Angeles Lakers has left many

unsure what to expect from one of the NBA’s most storied

franchises.

Expectations couldn’t get much higher for reigning MVP Derrick

Rose and the Chicago Bulls despite not much of an offseason

stir.

It appears a banged-up Kobe Bryant will play in the season

opener as the Lakers host Rose and the Bulls in a much-anticipated

Christmas Day matchup.

After failing to work out a trade for Orlando’s Dwight Howard

and seeing its deal for star point guard Chris Paul – who

ultimately landed with the crosstown Clippers – rejected by the

league, Los Angeles enters the season with plenty of

uncertainty.

Former coach and 11-time champion Phil Jackson’s retirement will

certainly take time getting used to, and sending Lamar Odom – a key

member of the 2008-09 and 2009-10 title teams – to Dallas for a

2012 first-round pick only fueled the frenzy surrounding the

Lakers.

“I’ve never quite seen something like this unfold,” said Bryant,

who expects to play despite recently tearing a ligament in his

right wrist. “Phil (Jackson) called it years ago. It’s kind of

become somewhat of a mess, but I think everybody is glad that it’s

behind them and everybody can move and just talk about the teams

and the season.”

Despite going 57-25 last season to claim a fourth consecutive

Pacific Division crown, the Lakers were ultimately swept by the

Mavericks in last season’s conference semifinals.

Though it was rumored four-time All-Star Pau Gasol was upset

about being part of the Paul deal that fell through, his presence

along with that of Bryant still makes a 17th ring for the Lakers a

possibility. However, getting accustomed to new coach Mike Brown’s

system will be a big adjustment as well.

“It’s going to be different, but we still have a lot of talent,”

Gasol said. “We can still have a great season.”

So can Chicago, which likes its chances of contending for a

title behind Rose.

Averaging 25.0 points and 7.7 assists to become the youngest MVP

in league history, Rose – who recently turned 23 – led the Bulls to

a league-best 62-20 record in 2010-11 before they fell to Miami in

the conference finals.

Chicago hardly changed the roster, with the notable exception of

Richard Hamilton’s addition, and the strong returning corps of

Rose, Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng has Bulls fans

excited about what lies ahead.

“Our goal is to win a championship, and I think that we have a

decent shot with the guys that we have coming back,” said Rose,

fresh off signing a five-year, $94.8 million extension. “I have a

lot of belief in my teammates, and I know that they have a lot of

belief in me and a lot of confidence in me as a player. That’s all

we need.”

Chicago stands to greatly benefit from the acquisition of

Hamilton, who signed a three-year, $15 million deal after being

bought out by Detroit. The 12-year veteran has averaged 17.7 points

for his career and figures to provide the Bulls with a consistent

scoring threat at shooting guard, something they clearly lacked

last season.

“They were already a great team before me, and I felt it was an

opportunity where I could help,” Hamilton said.

While Chicago will undoubtedly lean on Rose, having Noah and

Boozer stay healthy and contribute consistently also will be key.

They missed a combined 57 games last season, and Chicago went 24-5

with both big men in the lineup.

“I felt like we had the team – we still do – to win the whole

thing,” said Deng, who averaged 17.4 points last season. “But going

into this year, we’ve got to focus on us – what we’ve learned from

it and how we can get better. We can’t just focus on one team.

There are a lot of good teams in the East, but we’ve just got to

focus on where we’ve got to get better and what we’ve got to do

this year.”

Noah and Boozer won’t have to worry about defending Lakers

center Andrew Bynum, who will begin serving what is now a four-game

suspension for making unnecessary and excessive contact with

Dallas’ J.J. Barea in the playoffs. Bynum’s punishment was reduced

by one game due to the shortened season.

His absence surely won’t make things easier on Brown, who

planned to move Metta World Peace to the bench this season but

could start the former Ron Artest while Bynum is out.

“I’m going into the season knowing that this is my team, and I’m

happy about it,” Brown said. “I’m going to coach this team right

here, and I’ll let the perceptions swell. At the end of the season,

we’ll see how it all shook out.”

The Lakers had taken seven straight meetings in this series

before losing the most recent one, 88-84 in Chicago last Dec.

10.