No Bull: Still in First

No Rose or Hamilton, yet Chicago plugs along atop Central Division

Derrick Rose might not be back all season, the league’s best bench has been dismantled by salary-cap implications and Rip Hamilton could be out until 2013. For all of that, the Chicago Bulls are still leading the Central Division.

They’re not the same Bulls and they’re not a very likely title contender without Rose, still recovering from the traumatic knee injury incurred in last season’s playoffs. But the cupboard isn’t exactly bare for the team that takes a 9-8 record into the first Pistons-Bulls matchup of the season tonight at The Palace.

“What you can’t ignore is they’ve got three bigs that would start for virtually any team in the league,” Lawrence Frank said. “(Joakim) Noah is an All-Star. (Carlos) Boozer has been an All-Star. (Taj) Gibson is a very, very good player.”

Kirk Hinrich, who was Chicago’s point guard before the Bulls beat impossible odds to win the 2008 lottery and the right to draft homegrown star Rose at No. 1, is keeping Rose’s seat warm.

Gibson is all that remains from the bench that won many games for the Bulls a season ago. Omer Asik left for Houston in free agency and Kyle Korver wound up in Atlanta. The point guards who filled in for Rose during his injury-riddled regular season, C.J. Watson and John Lucas, are now in Brooklyn and Toronto.

“Their bench was a key, key component to their success,” Frank said. “Think about what Asik is doing in Houston right now. C.J. Watson was very good for them. John Lucas won some games for them. Korver, you had to game plan for him. And they had great continuity.”

Chicago reloaded as best it could off the bench, getting Nazr Mohammed to fill Asik’s role and adding Nate Robinson and Vladimir Radmanovic for scoring punch. Gibson, of course, remains the anchor, and second-year forward Jimmy Butler has assumed a major role. Marco Belinelli goes from the bench to the starting lineup while Hamilton recuperates.

“I think they’re finding their way a little bit,” Frank said. “It may actually help them a little bit that there’s some injuries now. Belinelli played a very confident game (in Wednesday’s win over Cleveland). But it’s a huge, huge adjustment going from having one of the premier benches to a bench that’s still very talented.

“They’re going to get it, but it’s going to take a little time. They’re better than their record and I think the more continuity they have, their bench will continue to improve.”

For all the upheaval, the constant for the Bulls is their ability to defend. In just about every important category, the Bulls are a top-five or top-10 defensive team.

“They’re not devoid of talent,” Frank said, “and the thing they do is they guard you every single night. For them, it’s sometimes whether they can score enough points, but they’re definitely not devoid of talent. They have plenty of talent.”