By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) It’s not easy to watch a team in the process of waiting.

There will be the usual activity, of course, with all that we’ve come to expect from players coached by Tom Thibodeau – dogged defense, a hustling second unit that outplays its counterpart most nights, and the most important guys logging heavy minutes, no matter what.

They will win more regular-season games than they probably should, as they have done.

For the moment, this odd cast of familiar faces and one-year-deal ciphers crosses off days until Derrick Rose returns, hopeful that his late-season arrival amid familiar overachievement catalyzes an unlikely series of playoff upsets in an improved Eastern Conference.

It’s a noble goal, but let’s be real. They weren’t beating Miami last year, even with Rose healthy. Even if the most optimistic scenario has him back on the court in January at full speed, the Bulls’ title window will only have reopened if his ACL rehab also made him 6-8, and 240 pounds.

This year is about next year, tough as it is to reconcile. It may even be about the year after next.

GM Gar Forman has been transparent in explaining the current roster, which has only seven hard commitments to contracts in 2013. The rest are either expiring deals or team-held options, providing flexibility when considering trade possibilities and free agency. This does not include the use of the amnesty provision that could expunge a bloated deal from the payroll.

There seems to be an understanding that we’re at the end of the first push to build a champion around Rose, and they are trying to keep all options open to find a way to start the next one as soon as realistically possible without sacrificing competitiveness – another daunting task.

You don’t re-sign Thibodeau unless you want to continue the culture of hard work and night in, night out, possession-to-possession intensity. There will be no playing for the lottery here. Half the team will be gone soon, so some of the lessons may be fruitless, but their thought is that guys like Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler will remain fully indoctrinated for one more run at something. Same goes for next year’s draftees, and Marquis Teague after he sits most of this season out.

Kirk Hinrich already looks like he’s way more important than was expected when he was signed, which means too important. He’ll do whatever is asked of him until injuries wear him down and take him out. Rip Hamilton, too, will run up and down the floor until his body fails him inevitably. Carlos Boozer is the only one who can reliably create his own offense, by which I mean a 17-foot fadeaway that takes him out of rebounding position.

There will be no Rose rescues from single-digit shot clocks, at least not for months, and perhaps well into his comeback. There will be more than a fair share of victories, but few will be pretty.

The Bulls will entertain in the short term, and in the tight focus of still doing everything they can to win the next game on the schedule. But this is a franchise on pause, in between what might have been and might still be, with some shrewd moves and plenty of good fortune.

Imagine a jetliner waiting for clearance to land, taking great pains to make sure its holding-pattern circles are as professional and well-executed as possible.

When they really matter again – and when we know that’s really the case – they won’t look like this. We can still anticipate watching the Bulls this year, even if we can’t quite see them.

bernstein 90x130 Bernstein: Bulls Set Off Down Uncertain Road
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.

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