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.