According to Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, Derrick Rose is without a defined return date (via the Chicago Tribune). The promising sign is that Rose is practicing and improving each time out.
If Rose is to return in 2013, the Eastern Conference's current conditions are ripe for D-Rose to win at the finish line.
As of December 29, the Bulls are 16-12. They are tied with the Milwaukee Bucks for the top spot in the Central Division, having split the season series thus far.
Most encouraging of all, Chicago is 12-4 against Eastern Conference foes.
If this were the Atlantic Division, the Bulls would be on top.
With their scoring defense ranking third in the NBA and their win-loss record placing them in contention for their division title, Chicago could survive without Rose in the rotation.
Should the 2011 NBA MVP return, however, we could see Chicago win much more than the Central Division. Chicago would become a legitimate contender for the Eastern Conference crown.
'It’s great to see him out here,' fellow guard Nate Robinson said. 'Today he did little shooting drills with us and stuff like that. For him to get closer and closer, for the Bulls fans, it’s definitely a relief.
'Every single day he comes in here way early and he leaves late. So he’s pushing himself, and it’s good to see.'
No one will question D-Rose's work ethic. The same should be said for that of his teammates.
The Bulls are within striking distance of the East's top two teams. They're also the two-time defending regular-season Eastern Conference champions.
They've been there before and won without Rose. Should he return, however, an NBA Finals appearance is not out of the question.
It's a legitimate possibility.
Winning the Division
In other words, the Pacers are in the same predicament as the Chicago Bulls. The only difference is that the Pacers are waiting on an ex-All-Star and Chicago is anticipating the return of an ex-MVP.
You tell me who has more to look forward to.
As for the Milwaukee Bucks, they're a fringe postseason team with a long history of stumbling down the stretch. Although they presently possess more depth than ever before in the Scott Skiles era, history suggests they're unlikely to pull too far away from the Bulls.
Should Derrick Rose make a regular-season return, his influence could be enough to make a run and win the Central Division. Even without him, that appears to be a possibility.
By winning the division crown, Chicago would earn home-court advantage during the first round. With D-Rose at the helm, that's all it would take.
By earning a four-game home stint in the first round, Chicago would create momentum for a later series. In turn, holding down their home court would be a far less daunting task down the road.
This would present Chicago with an opportunity where winning one road game could be enough to win a series. As we saw during the 2010-11 NBA playoffs, D-Rose is more than capable of leading the Bulls to said feat.
Injured Players Returning
Contrary to popular belief, it's not just Derrick Rose who has been missing for the Chicago Bulls.
Thus far in 2012-13, head coach Tom Thibodeau has been forced to utilize reserves in starting roles with injuries to guards Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton. In turn, the second unit turned to unproven commodities for quality minutes.
Fortunately, both Hinrich and Hamilton are back in the starting lineup.
Hamilton returned to the rotation on December 29 after missing 12 games with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot (via ESPN Chicago). Hinrich has been battling nagging injuries all year, but returned December 18 (via CSN Chicago).
In turn, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli have gone from temporary starters to reliable scoring options off the bench.
More importantly, rookie Marquis Teague and second-year wingman Jimmy Butler will now receive a lighter burden. Although they possess upside, neither proved to be ready for such a sudden influx of minutes.
Upon Derrick Rose's return from injury, the second unit will only grow stronger with Hinrich's move to sixth man. The starting lineup will also have their dynamic playmaker.
With the defense maintaining their elite pace, improvement in depth and offensive potency could be all it takes to push Chicago over the top.
Top Dogs Struggling
At 16-12, one might expect the Chicago Bulls to be out of contention for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Surprisingly, they aren't even close to eliminated from the conversation.
In fact, Chicago is only four games behind the Miami Heat for first overall.
For those who claim the Bulls cannot step up to take the top seed, remember that they've finished the regular season atop the Eastern Conference in each of the past two seasons. They did so in 2011-12 with D-Rose missing 27 games.
Who's to say they can't repeat their success?
Miami has gone 9-5 in December and lost two consecutive outings. Even when they're winning, anyone from a diehard to an outsider would tell you that they've performed in an underwhelming manner.
As for the Knicks, they're just four games ahead of Chicago. They've also lost each of their first two battles with the Bulls.
The Knicks have also lost four of their past seven games.
With the top teams struggling, the Bulls should be within striking distance come Derrick Rose's potential return. This would present the opportunity for the former MVP to lead Chicago to their third consecutive regular season with the top seed in the East.
Even if they have to settle for a division crown, the Bulls are an NBA championship contender. D-Rose would make sure of it.