Sleeper sell

(whoa, I just blew my own mind with that headline)

Kevin Arnovitz's TrueHoop post yesterday re-ignited the 'what the heck are the Bulls doing, and how should I feel about this season?' feelings that were constantly internally bombarding me after the Gordon fiasco.

He lists the Bulls as a 'sleeper', yet doesn't quite qualify it as a sleeper to what, exactly. A sleeper to make the playoffs? Reach the 4th seed? Just be better than last year? How about merely staying the course with last year under the expectation that the loss of Gordon will set them back?

Arnovitz's sleeper success benchmark is the vauge 'continuing their progress' after their 'coming of age' series against the Celtics. I don't view a first-round loss to a depleted team that much of an accomplishment, but I have maintained all summer that it is certainly important that the Bulls continue to seem like a team on the rise, whether they are or not.

Such a designation still rings hollow to me, as Arnovitz's 'long-term' complements to Rose are Hinrich (turning 29 this season) and Salmons (30). To stay under the cap far enough to land a major free agent, the Bulls need to trade one of those guys or hope Salmons opts out. Arnovitz mentions Tyrus Thomas as a 'wild card', though whatever progress he makes likely won't be enough to keep him on the team after this season. 

So to me it's not about continuing progress. It's about keeping the 'progress' lie alive until a 2010 plan blows up the team with a fast-rebuild around Rose, Deng (ability+unmoveablecontract+age), some free agent, and perhaps Noah. 

Designating a team as a 'sleeper' or 'overrated/underrated' implies some kind of consensus expectation. I don't know if one exists for this year's Bulls. I know some here think they'll not only be able to cope, but thrive without Gordon (Arnovitz makes an unconvincing case for this with 'expert ballhandler' Hinrich and 'able to defend 3 positions' Salmons supplementing the Thomas and Deng 'ifs' parade) .

There's also a doomsday scenario (30s win total) that also seems quite real, though I still believe that there will be enough improvements in other areas to compensate for losing Gordon, getting the Bulls back to that first-round-losing promised land.

But that's not continuing progress, it's treading water. The Bulls have so many major choices and need so much more talent (and luck) to get into real contention that the only progress that is actually important is some individual goals for the players who will actually be on the next great Bulls team, namely a big step up for Rose. 

Not that this season won't be exciting or have value. Because while I do think that a true sleeper success story would be this team finishing with a 4 or 5 seed, and I expect the Bulls to make the playoffs, that expectation therefore is for one of those final spots. And it is not guaranteed in the least. So the only thing more unsettling than the Bulls reducing expectations to a mere playoff appearance is that how potentially hard it will be to achieve it.

Though I will say as the summer rolls on, I am more and more looking forward to the grind of seeing them try and do it.

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