CHICAGO - Derrick Rose understands the hot pick these days is in South Beach, that there's a recent champion in Boston and Superman is soaring around Orlando.
The Chicago Bulls, for all their changes, still have a difficult climb. The Eastern Conference championship might be beyond their reach, no matter how much they improved.
Even so, Rose has a message: Don't count them out.
"We're there," Rose said. "We have a whole new coaching staff, a couple of great players that came along to our team. I think that we can compete against some of the best teams in the NBA."
The Bulls boast a point guard in Rose who followed up a Rookie of the Year season by making his first All-Star team last year and is coming off a world championship run with the U.S. team. They have what they believe is a top-tier inside duo with newcomer Carlos¿Boozer joining Joakim Noah, a good mix of role players and the right coach in Tom Thibodeau.
More than anything, what they have now are expectations. They're aiming higher after back-to-back first-round playoff exits.
That's why they fired Vinny Del Negro and replaced him with Thibodeau, the mastermind behind a dominant defense that helped Boston win the championship in 2008 and get back to the finals last season, and it's why they were big shoppers in that wild free agent market.
The Bulls went all in for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, hoping one or two of the superstars would team with Rose in Chicago and go for their first championship since the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen era.
Instead, King James and Bosh joined Wade in a royal triumvirate in Miami that left many declaring the Heat rulers in the Eastern Conference, with Boston and Orlando as threats to their throne.
"No. 1, I think that we realize that we have a lot of work to do, offensively and defensively," Noah said. "We've got a lot of new players, a new system and a new coach. It's not about expectations. It's not about what people are saying. It's on us as a team to stick together through hard times and good times and understand where we want to be in the long run."
In the short run, success largely hinges on Rose and Noah, along with the healing powers of Boozer.
The centerpiece of their offseason overhaul, he agreed a five-year, $75 million deal that wound up turning into a sign-and-trade with Utah in the summer and joined a team that had craved a dominant inside presence for years.
The Bulls believe the two-time All-Star will give them just that, but they'll have to wait.
Boozer broke the fifth metatarsal in his right hand in what he said was a fall over a gym bag in his home about two weeks ago and is expected to miss the first month. When he's ready, he'll join Noah in a frontcourt that figures to dominate on the glass.
After leading the league in rebounding last season, the Bulls now have two double-double players down low.
Boozer, who averaged 19.5 points and 11.2 rebounds, also figures to take some of the scoring load off Rose. Noah, who just signed a five-year extension, is coming off a breakout season in which he averaged 10.7 points and 11.0 rebounds but missed 18 games because of plantar fasciitis in his left foot.
So assuming no major moves, the Bulls have their core in place for years to come. But will it be enough in a crowded conference?
"I think we'll prove it," Boozer said. "I'm not one of those guys who are going to go out there and tell you we're going to be one, two, three, four in the East. I think we'll go out there and prove how good we are when we get our legs back under us."
The new-look roster includes Kyle Korver, who set an NBA record by converting 53.6 percent of his 3-pointers with Utah last season. He fills a big hole after Chicago shot just 33 percent from long range and ranked 28th overall last season.
The Bulls are also banking on better defense under Thibodeau, a longtime NBA assistant whose only other head coaching job was with his alma mater Salem State College in Massachusetts in the mid-1980s.
"He goes over every detail," Rose said. "Defensively, we could be over one little thing for like 20 minutes until we get it right. He's a really good coach to where he tells you what you got to do, listen to what you got to say or if you have suggestions he's listening to it."
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