Unlike some Chicago Bulls homers who think the Bulls are the best team in the Eastern Conference, I am a rational fan with reasonable expectations.
Right now, the Bulls are a lock for a top-four spot in the East, along with the Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, and Boston Celtics.
Are they the clear-cut favorites to win the NBA Championship? Not by a long shot. Vegas gives them the fifth-highest odds to win a title at 15-1, which is a far cry from the 7-4 odds placed on the Heat.
Many sportswriters have used baseball terminology to evaluate the free agency period.
Miami hit a home run.
New Jersey struck out.
Chicago hit a solid double.
Taking the analogy literally, teams that play "small ball" sometimes win, but they have to work a lot harder than the team that can just knock balls out of the park.
Let's just say the Bulls have their work cut out for them.
No one expected to see Boston come out of the East this year, and yet through mental toughness and gritty play they defeated Cleveland and Orlando.
Chicago could do the same, but several pieces must fall into place. Here are the 10 things that the Bulls need to compete for a championship in 2010-2011.
The 2004 Detroit Pistons aside, how many teams have won championships without at least one elite player?
Derrick Rose made the All-Star team in only his second year in the league, which is a testament to how great of a player he can be.
Now in his third year, he needs to cement himself in the "best point guard in the NBA" discussion with Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, and Rajon Rondo.
Of course, it would be best if he could put that discussion to rest and top them all.
After striking out on the "Big Three" in free agency, the Bulls have to put their faith in Rose to become a superstar. All signs are pointed in that direction, as the quiet Rose has boasted about his new three-point stroke.
He has shown the ability to will a mediocre team to victory. The Bulls should not have made the playoffs last year with a gutted roster and a coach who knew his time was up.
Now that Carlos Boozer is with Rose instead of Williams, will Rose's stock among point guards skyrocket? Could he be the top point guard in the NBA by season's end?
The Bulls had better hope so. Rose's development is the most important factor in Chicago having a shot at a title.
Boozer's health comes in a close second to Rose's progression.
As previously mentioned, these two elements are highly correlated. Rose's game will feed off Boozer's, ideally developing Chicago's point guard into one of the league's best.
However, if Boozer misses significant time, where do the Bulls stand?
Pretty much back at square one.
Taj Gibson would start at power forward. The starting five would be identical to last year except Ronnie Brewer would be the shooting guard instead of Kirk Hinrich.
That comparison is pretty much a wash.
Would the bench be any deeper? The Bulls gained Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson but lost Brad Miller. I don't see a huge discrepancy there either.
The point is, without Boozer, the Bulls are not a significantly better team. A lot rests on Boozer's low-post presence, for it makes everyone's job a lot easier.
The Bulls have had their fair share of head coaches since Michael Jordan left town.
Most recently, Vinny Del Negro was fired after lackluster results and fighting with upper management.
Before that, Scott Skiles was let go on Christmas Eve, since his players stopped responding to him.
Thibodeau needs to be a mix of the Bulls' past two coaches. He needs to have the intensity of Skiles while remaining as likable as Del Negro.
So far, it seems like the longtime assistant has that personality.
He earns the players' respect by being fully prepared for every scenario. He has coached enough stars with big egos to know what buttons to push.
Of course, winning always helps.
If Thibodeau and his young squad are successful early and he gets all the players to buy into his defense-first mentality, the Bulls could catapult to the top of the East in a hurry.
Of the preseason top four teams in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls are by far the youngest. Getting off to a fast start could ultimately net them the best record in the conference.
Home-court advantage isn't everything, but it doesn't hurt when vying for a championship.
It seems like forever since experts were predicting Luol Deng would turn into an All-Star level player.
The versatile wingman has been plagued by injuries over the past few years and has been settling for mid-range jumpers too often, causing some to label him as "soft."
Chicagoans expect more out of a player making upwards of $10 million a season.
Deng needs to improve his ball-handling and ability to take defenders one-on-one. The only way he is seemingly capable of playing right now is within a predetermined offensive scheme.
If Deng can finish like Brewer does, Rose would be flanked with two slashers who can also spot up and hit a mid-range shot.
That kind of versatility would make Bulls fans forget the name J.J. Redick.
If Deng gains more muscle and develops the mindset to battle down low, he could possibly reach All-Star status.
He is just as tall as Boozer and could play power forward if the Bulls went with a smaller lineup.
Likewise, he has the frame to match up against LeBron James. With Thibodeau's guidance, he could become a lockdown defender similar to Ron Artest.
It all begins with toning his body. Once Deng does that, he could silence all his critics.
Noah is what most in the sports world refer to as a "glue guy."
He has come a long way since walking up to shake David Stern's hand in a bow tie. Last year, he was the clear vocal leader of the Bulls.
That takes an enormous amount of pressure off Rose, who is shy around the media. With Noah drawing the media attention, Rose can focus on honing his game.
It's more than off the court though. Noah has a bit of Dennis Rodman, Chad Ochocinco, and Michael Jordan about him.
He has crazy hair and rebounds like Rodman.
He trash talks and provides bulletin board material like Ochocinco.
He has a winner's mentality and intensity about him like Jordan. Well, as close to Jordan as a mere mortal can be.
As long as Noah plays scrappy basketball and never backs down from a challenge, the Bulls will always have a chance to win ballgames. Who can forget his coast-to-coast slam against Boston in the 2009 playoffs?
Bulls management probably took one look at Watson's three-point shooting percentage from two years ago and immediately pulled the trigger with the Warriors.
40 percent from beyond the arc as an occasional starter is quite a great quality in a backup point guard.
The Bulls need that perimeter presence. After missing out on Redick, Korver is Chicago's only true deep threat. And it would be a dead giveaway to bring him in when the team needs a trey.
Korver can shoot lights-out, and it seems Watson has distance on his shot too. Rose can knock down treys as well.
Brewer and James Johnson are not three-point shooters. Deng can make some, and needs to be able to from the corner especially.
If the Bulls are to contend this year, they will have to get contributions from beyond the arc from everyone. Last year's squad was among the worst in the NBA from distance, which limits the ability to stage a comeback.
This year, expect a much-improved three-point attack, led by Korver and buoyed by Watson, Rose, and Deng.
One of the best things about Hinrich was he was more of a point guard than a shooting guard, and thus could take the pressure off Rose to constantly handle the ball.
Ideally, Brewer should do the same thing.
It is too easy for the opposition to trap the ball and throw an offense out of sync if only one or two players can really handle the ball. That's what hurts about Deng.
With Brewer, who played at the point at Arkansas, Rose should at least have another teammate with handles. That should help speed up the transition game as well.
This is quite obvious. The Bulls two first-round selections from 2009 will be on the team again this year and should factor into the nightly rotation.
Gibson, who was one of the top rookies last season, will have a more limited role backing up Boozer. However, he should at least improve his per-minute averages.
Also, he will be fresh off the bench to battle with the fatigued or second-string opposition, which should allow him to dominate near the basket.
James Johnson is more of a question mark. He came into the summer league significantly lighter and in better shape. He's probably the ninth or 10th man right now, but could see more time if he improves defensively.
Depth will be Chicago's chance at downing Miami's "Big Three."
Obviously, the offense needs to be tailored to what best suits Rose.
In half-court sets, that's the pick-and-roll.
In general, that's the fast break.
Boozer has already proven to be deadly on the pick-and-roll with Deron Williams. He can spot up for a mid-range jumper or take it to the rim with authority.
Either way, it poses a dilemma for the defense and will give Rose ample opportunities to score. The same goes for Brewer.
The Bulls should also look to use their great rebounding as a weapon in transition. Against older teams, expect Noah and Boozer to throw an immediate outlet pass to Rose or Brewer to start a fast break.
Against the Heat, the Bulls could be more methodological and slow the tempo. Against the Celtics, they could run them off the floor.
Either way, the offense must be more intricate than under Del Negro.
The Bulls have gotten players who have heart, passion for the game, and an unselfish mentality.
They have pieces that fit, and depth to back those pieces up.
They might not have the best team in the NBA, but they are close.
So to get over the hump, Chicago has to overachieve. It has been done before, quite recently under Skiles.
The Bulls are not the favorites, Chicago fans, so get that idea out of your heads. The two Florida teams are beasts of the East. The Heat and Magic have three of the top six players in the NBA on their rosters.
Still, the Bulls have a shot. A lot of things must happen the right way, but at the end of the day Chicago will be right in the mix for a championship at the end of the season.