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Steve Aschburner

With a limited sample size, the Bulls are still waiting to see what the Rip Hamilton-Derrick Rose combo brings.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Even with success, Bulls longing to be at full strength

Posted Feb 17 2012 12:38PM

CHICAGO -- Derrick Rose hasn't dominated the basketball much for the Chicago Bulls lately, but he continues to dominate most everything else. From the conversation to the candle-lighting, with a whole lot of concerns in between.

Rose didn't participate in his team's 89-80 victory over the Boston Celtics Thursday night at United Center,yet he was conspicuous even in his absence. Everywhere you looked, it was Rose, Rose, Rose -- actually, it was Derrick Rose bobblehead night so his likeness really was everywhere at once in the arena, with the exception of the court. The little Rose-like fellow toted a proportionately teensy MVP trophy, immediately sparking concerns that it might be too much for Rose's 1/10th-scale resin replica self to be lugging around.

With the sore back and all.

That's the current injury that has broadcasters giving injury updates in Chicago as breathlessly as breaking news of the latest alderman sentencing. In March 1995, Michael Jordan announced his return to basketball with a two-word press release: "I'm back." In February 2012, another Bulls superstar could distribute daily something equally brief and nervously anticipated, only it would say: "My back."

"If I'm just sitting around, I don't really feel it," Rose said after the morning shootaround Thursday. "But when I'm out there doing stuff, that's when it bothers me. It's going to be sore moving. I don't want to feel it tight in the game. I'm going to come back when I'm ready."

A back specialist in New York -- the chief of spinal trauma at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, specifically -- was made available Thursday for interviews. The info sheet included disclaimers, however, noting that the expert never had treated Rose, didn't know what treatment the player was receiving from his own specialist and, oh yeah, understood that Rose has been diagnosed with back spasms rather than actual spine trauma.

So chatting up the professor doc would have been like seeking out a vegan to scout Kansas City barbeques.

People have begun parsing the wording of every announced diagnosis, and you really need to be there when a group of sports reporters, none of whom spent a day more in med school than Doc Rivers, starts debating the vagaries of a phrase like "no structural damage" as it related to someone's spine.

The Bulls' injury report online actually is sponsored by AthletiCo, the team's "chosen provider of physical therapy and occupational therapy." Naturally, that is crack to conspiracy junkies, who start to wonder if Rose's season and Chicago's championship ambitions are being sacrificed to some greater marketing good.

AthletiCo at least has gotten a good run for its sponsorship. Rose has missed nine games this season, three more than his total over his first three seasons. Five were due to a left toe sprain, the most recent four to his back. Forward Luol Deng was out for seven after tearing a ligament in his left wrist, an injury he is trying to play through.

Guard C.J. Watson missed 10, mostly with a sprained elbow, and forward Taj Gibson sat down for three with an ankle sprain.

Then there's Richard Hamilton, who has missed 21, the first 10 with a sore left groin, the latest 11 due to a sore right thigh, which at least has evened out the limp.

Rose's back is the big story in Chicago, with a throng of reporters staking out his vacant dressing stall before games. But Hamilton's extended absence is the Scottie Pippen of Bulls' injuries, the one that doesn't get the big headlines but is equally vital to what the team wants to accomplish.

More vital, even.

With Rose, the decision tree is as short and sweet as his bobblehead: if he's healthy, the Bulls and their fans can keep imagining a long playoff run with a possibly happy ending. If he's not, then it's dampens their chances of beating the Miami Heat or even surviving a round or two in the East playoffs.

Without Rose, the hope-and-dreams machine doesn't even get plugged in, because for all practical purposes, the reiging MVP is the Bulls.

Hamilton, on the other hand, was the hired X-factor. Paid $5 million for this season and $5 million for next, when he'll turn 35 and start drawing more comparisons to Boston's Ray Allen for mileage than for perpetual motion. He was to be the Bulls' other scorer, the upgrade over lunch-bucket Keith Bogans who could ease Rose's load by creating shots and drawing defenders, while making guys like Dwyane Wade or Allen work.

Has Hamilton been that guy? Who can say? The Bulls are 8-3 in the games he has played, but they're 17-4 when he hasn't. That's a bigger, more trustable sample size than their 7-2 mark without Rose, which itself is a tribute to Chicago's depth and the architectural roster work of GM Gar Forman and VP John Paxson.

Still, coach Tom Thibodeau has had his preferred starting five -- Rose, Hamilton, Deng, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer -- for just five games and none since Jan. 4 in Detroit. First Hamilton was out. Then Rose. Then Deng. Then Hamilton and Deng. Now Rose and Hamilton.

Last season, Boozer and Noah were the ones coming and going, popping up and sitting down like moving targets at a shooting gallery. This season (save for one game Noah sat with an ankle sprain), the Bulls' center and power forward have been constants. And it has shown. Consider Thursday's work against Boston -- Boozer scored 23 points with 15 rebounds and five assists, Noah had 15 and 16 and Deng plugged some of the void on the perimeter with 23 points, 10 assists and 6-of-9 shooting from the arc.

"Last year, [Noah and I] didn't have a good chance to play with each other consistently until the playoffs," Boozer said. "This year, we've played the whole year together. You can see how good our chemistry is. We make plays for each other and it's usually either a dunk or a layup."

Adding a key player to a basketball rotation takes time, familiarity, reps and trust for things to flow and results to grow. Thibodeau has been cautious of late with both Rose and Hamilton, extending their recoveries day by day, and he might even be wise to shut both of them down through the All-Star break for an extra week to heal. (After all, Thibodeau is the East coach this year. As much as he dislikes working a sideline without Rose on the floor in front of him, he might have backup options in Orlando next week on par with the Bulls' bench mob.)

But there comes a time when a healthy player can return too late to help. All those ingredients cited above aren't in place and can't be rushed. Ask Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, who didn't have point guard Jameer Nelson for Orlando's first 19 postseason games in 2009, then got him back -- sort of -- too late to stop the bleeding vs. L.A. in The Finals.

"Now that's a hard one, especially if your team has gotten to The Finals," Rivers said. "But other than that, if it's before the season ends and he's one of your starters or key guys, I'm taking the talent and I'll try to figure it out. But you absolutely risk hurting your rhythm, at least short-term. And in the playoffs, short-term can mean losing a game that knocks you out."

Hamilton feels the urgency. The playoffs start in two months and he has played a total of 341 minutes with a team he's expected to push over the top. The Bulls know what they'll be doing with Rose -- and won't be doing without him. They still aren't sure what they have in Hamilton, and he gets that.

"I think, right now for me, it's just to get out there and play," Hamilton said as he exited the building Thursday night. "I've only played 11 games already, so it's like, if I've only played 11, you want to be out there. So you don't even look at the break giving you six or seven extra days. As soon as I can get out there and play, that's what I'm going to do."

Hamilton said he's comfortable enough with his new teammates, based on a handful of practices and only slightly more games. "When you've got a great group of guys, you've got a great team and everybody knows what each other's role is, it's easy," he said. "When you're on a team that nobody knows their role and everybody's out for himself, that's when it's tough.

"And this here, it fits my game. I don't have to go out and do anything crazy or play out of character."

He does, however, have to play. And as far as the Bulls are concerned, sooner would kick later's butt.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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