Pippen: Challenge for the Bulls is to keep improving

"There are no guarantees in the league and the challenges will always be there," writes Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen. "[The Bulls] will have to keep working, but this is a group that will do just that. Tom Thibodeau and his staff do a wonderful job and th

It was a great day for the Bulls this week to lock up NBA MVP Derrick Rose to a five-year contract extension. Since he began his professional career, he’s always shown a great deal of professionalism, and that was impressive, given he came in as a young player with only one year of college. Derrick has constantly grown and matured, and that’s what has propelled him to being an elite player who has pushed this franchise forward. So it was a win-win for the Bulls to make that commitment to a player who has such a bright future ahead of him, and for Rose to get the security he wanted.

Obviously Derrick has an amazing set of talents, but it’s his intangibles that set him apart from the pack. His leadership will be as important as ever this season. He will demand a lot from his teammates, but he demands just as much, if not more, from himself. And every night, his drive and determination is evident, as is his will to win and desire to be the best. He raised the bar in becoming the league’s youngest MVP last season, and now, we can’t expect anything less from him.

The Bulls had a tremendous season last year, but they know they need to take another step forward this year. Everyone is aware of the obstacles out there and most likely in the Eastern Conference, that will mean facing the Miami Heat. I think the New York Knicks improved their stock as well in the offseason and they could be a tough team. And while the Boston Celtics aren’t getting any younger, they are still a threat if they can stay healthy. With Dwight Howard still in Orlando, at least for now, the Magic will be there as well.

Though they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and had the NBA’s best regular season record, it won’t get any easier for the Bulls. There are no guarantees in the league and the challenges will always be there. They’ll have to keep working, but this is a group that will do just that. Tom Thibodeau and his staff do a wonderful job and they’ll keep the players hungry and focused, just like they did last season.

With the late start to the season and playing a 66-game schedule in about four months, this year will have a different look. Staying healthy will be key, but in the event the Bulls do suffer some injuries along the way—and they will—I expect their depth to be a huge asset. A regular 82-game season is a grind and it will be even tougher on the teams this year. The games will keep coming and they have to be prepared. All you can do is take it one game at a time, something that Thibodeau always did a great job at stressing.

With fewer games, each one becomes a little more important because you don’t have the luxury of making up games or getting that extra run of wins in if you need it. The 66 games will go by pretty quickly and the same amount of preparation time, for the players and coaches, won’t be there. The Bulls will want to get back to playing at that high level as fast as possible, and they likely will with chemistry already on their side.

The most significant change to the roster, of course, is the addition of Rip Hamilton. Signing Hamilton gives the Bulls a nice upgrade at shooting guard. I’ve always liked Rip and admired his style of play. He’s a very unselfish player, he understands the game, and he plays hard on both ends of the court. I think he’ll be a great fit. He’s not coming in to make a name for himself or shoot for the stars. He’s not looking to lead the team in scoring or shoot a bunch of threes; he just wants to win. And he’s a proven winner who will bring that pedigree to the Bulls.

Adding Rip will also force opposing defenses to pay attention to another player on the floor. Not to take anything away from Keith Bogans, because I thought he did an outstanding job last season fulfilling his role and providing a veteran presence on a consistent basis, but Hamilton is a threat offensively. He’ll draw double teams on occasion and work through picks to find open shots. And he’s also an above-average defender, which is another area Bogans helped the team. With Rip in the mix, you’ve got three to four guys on the team who can put up 20-plus points on any given night. It gives the Bulls a more dynamic look offensively and it will keep opponents on their toes. Perhaps most importantly, it brings Chicago much closer to the Miami Heat. The Bulls put up a good fight in the conference finals, but in the end they didn’t quite have enough. After losing to the Mavericks in the NBA Finals, you know that the Heat will be ready to go this season. But so will the Bulls.

It all gets started on Christmas Day in Los Angeles. It looks like the Bulls are back among the teams that you can count on playing Dec. 25 each year, and that means a lot for the franchise. As a player, I always felt that was the greatest day to play. We had many of our games at home, so we could enjoy being with our family and then go play on a huge stage before a massive audience. It’s a wonderful feeling to combine those two things and I know the guys are excited about the opportunity. Starting off the season with a win against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers would be a great way to get things going. Regardless of what happens on Sunday, NBA basketball is back and I can’t wait to see how the season plays out.