If Rip Hamilton has anything left in the tank, the 2012-13 NBA season is his last chance to prove it to the world.
The Chicago Bulls need the former champion to harness his inner Detroit Piston to become a legitimate playoff threat in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls brought in Hamilton before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season, and most of Chicago thought he was the missing piece to the championship puzzle.
But injuries derailed the 34-year-old veteran's season, as Hamilton appeared in just 28 of the team's 66 regular-season games. He averaged just 24.9 minutes and 11.6 points per game, his lowest totals since his rookie campaign in the 1999-2000 season.
Hamilton also made little impact in Chicago's first-round playoff series against the Philadelphia 76ers after Derrick Rose tore his ACL in Game 1. In that contest, Hamilton had 19 points on 6-of-7 shooting. In the final five games, Hamilton shot a combined 35.7 percent from the floor.
Hamilton cannot score off the dribble. During the postseason, Evan Turner showed how much athleticism Rip has lost by smothering him on plenty of possessions.
Granted, Hamilton was forced into doing more on his own in Rose's absence, and it didn't help that backup point guards C.J. Watson and John Lucas III were stifled by Philadelphia's perimeter pressure. The duo struggled to create any offense and could not find Hamilton coming off screens for open shots.
Hamilton is entering what could be his final season with the Bulls because the team has an option to pick up his deal for one more season.
However, Chicago could easily let the veteran go after this year if he has another disappointing season.
That is why Hamilton should be feeling the pressure to perform better than he did last year. If Hamilton plays well, he could stick around for another season in the Windy City for $5 million. Even if the Bulls decide to let him go, a decent 2012-13 campaign should land Hamilton one more solid deal before retirement.
If Hamilton is plagued by injuries and plays poorly for another season, it might be time for him to call it a career. The Bulls would almost surely decline his option, and the best-case scenario for Rip would be to ink a one-year deal with an average team.
In a nutshell, Hamilton's performance this season could determine whether he signs another multi-million dollar contract or loses his job in the NBA.
With the Bench Mob broken up and a new unit coming in, Hamilton will be expected to carry the load at shooting guard, especially in Rose's absence. Chicago may also be without Luol Deng for an extended period of time to start the season due to possible wrist surgery.
That means the Bulls could end up leaning heavily on Hamilton to shoulder the scoring load.
Chicago added depth at the guard position by signing Kirk Hinrich and by drafting Marquis Teague, but neither will provide enough points to make up for the loss of Rose.
Toss a healthy Hamilton into the conversation, however, and that perimeter trio may be enough to keep the Bulls afloat in the playoff hunt by the time the team's stars return.
Many fans are ready to write off Hamilton, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt in regard to the lockout. One of the reasons why he may have been injured most of the season could be due to the tightened schedule and due to the fact that Hamilton did not know where he was going to play until a couple of weeks before the season.
Rip had little time to establish chemistry with his teammates, and it showed on the court. Solid chemistry in the passing attack and knowledge of the offense are essential to Hamilton's success.
A full offseason with Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff and a longer rest period may be just what the doctor ordered for Hamilton to have a successful 2012-13 season.
The veteran will be expected to shoulder a fair share of the load for the Bulls, especially early in the season. Players will be adjusting to a new-look squad, but Hamilton's calming presence could facilitate a seamless transition.
However, he has to prove his value to the team with his performance on the court.
Hamilton needs to go back to playing his game—running around screens, reading defenses and knocking down catch-and-shoot jumpers. If he consistently shows flashes of his old self, he will be a major asset to Chicago, and the Bulls need it now more than ever.
The clock is ticking on Hamilton's career, and this is his last shot to prove to the Bulls that he could still contribute to a contender. If he stays healthy, there's no reason to believe that Hamilton's savvy veteran skills wouldn't help Chicago.
It's time to unleash the power of the face mask.