By Jake Clemens, Sports Columnist

The 2012 NBA season is well underway, and the Chicago Bulls have emerged as a play-off contender this year.

The 2011 Bulls team snuck under the radar for most of the season. But the Bulls are not going to be able to play the underdog role this season, as teams know that they are a threat and are going to take notice whenever Chicago is on their schedule.

The Bulls’ clear weakness last year was at the shooting guard position. Keith Bogans, while an excellent defender, simply couldn’t perform offensively. Management made a big move just before the start of the season by signing veteran guard Richard ‘Rip’ Hamilton who has one of the best mid-range shots in the game. His signing was crucial for Chicago’s future success.

Additionally, since there is going to be little time between games, the season is going to be tough from the get-go. Specifically, injuries are going to have a greater impact on teams because more games will have to be missed.

Unfortunately, the Bulls have already faced their share of injuries. Rip Hamilton has played in only five games this season due to a groin injury. He is going to need to be healthy and become assimilated into the offense if this Bulls team wants to accomplish anything this year. What’s more, backup point guard CJ Watson suffered a sprained elbow and had to miss nine games before returning to action.

But the most threatening injury occurred to Derrick Rose, who suffered turf toe and has seen limited action recently, and when Rose is out of the lineup, it instantly becomes clear how important he is to the success of the team. All three of these players are necessary for the Bulls to win games this year, and whether they will be healthy enough to play remains to be seen.

Another concerning problem has been the play of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. Both players played terribly in their play-off matchup with the Heat last year, and they have looked nearly as bad when on the court together this year. Something needs to improve quickly or a change needs to be made, perhaps in a trade of Noah.

But not everything is looking down for the Bulls. “The Bench Mob,” the Bulls’ unselfish and talented reserve, is a huge asset again this year. Backup center Omir Asik has been playing great and it’s possible that we could see him take over the starting role before long.

Ronnie Brewer has stepped in to play shooting guard when needed and has played well. Taj Gibson continues to play his tough-nose style of play and would be a starter on nearly any other team in the league. Even third string point guard John Lucas III has stepped up when called upon.

So far, the Bulls are 12-3 and have won some games in impressive fashion. But after watching last year’s playoff series against the Heat, it is evident that the Bulls can’t rely solely on Rose. The season is still young, but improvement, or possibly some movement of players on the team, needs to occur in order for the Bulls to even begin thinking about winning a title this year.