As soon as Derrick Rose returns to the hardwood, things will be dramatically altered in the Eastern Conference.
His presence not only completely changes the ceiling of the Chicago Bulls, but it also could completely change who represents the Eastern Conference in the 2013 NBA Finals.
Rose still needs to begin participating in contact practices before we can begin analyzing when he'll return to Chicago's rotation, but it is apparent that he'll return this season and likely regain his form as the playoffs near.
There's no need to convince basketball fans of what Rose can do when he's healthy. Just two seasons ago, he was the league's Most Valuable Player when he averaged 25.0 points and 7.7 assists per game while leading the Bulls to a league-best 62 wins.
Currently, the Bulls are 24-16 without Rose in the lineup, most recently notching an impressive win over the underachieving Los Angeles Lakers. The Bulls have held their heads above water in Rose's absence, establishing confidence playing without him.
Imagine how much easier things will be for this squad upon regaining the 2011 MVP. They've already developed some effective patterns in 2012-13, and these patterns will only be enhanced when their bona fide superstar reappears.
While other teams in the Eastern Conference will seek to add players via trade in the coming weeks, the Bulls will add an MVP-caliber player and not even give up anything in return. This is quite the talent to throw in the mix of an already-competitive team.
Interestingly, the Bulls are only three games behind the conference-leading Miami Heat. What this tells us is that if Rose is healthy, the Bulls are undeniably a major threat to anybody in the conference, even the reigning champion Heat.
Currently, the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets have stirred some league-wide discussions after performing at a high level during portions of the season's first half. The Indiana Pacers have also raised some eyebrows with gritty defense, and they are awaiting the return of one of their best players in Danny Granger.
Yet when Rose is in uniform, the Bulls have limited reason to fear such opponents, particularly the Knicks (who the Rose-less Bulls are 3-0 against on the season) and the Nets. The Pacers are a bit more concerning, but a full-strength Bulls squad should even be able to handle them with relative ease.
No matter what they can do without Rose, they can most certainly do all the more with him. There's every reason to believe that Chicago would be situated at the top of the conference if Rose was healthy (they were in 2010-11 and 2011-12). Therefore, upon his return, they automatically become the most likely team to upend Miami prior to the Finals.
What Rose's return will specifically do is cause the conference to become a two-team race. The Knicks, Nets and Pacers could pose problems in a seven-game series, but it's hard to envision those units pulling any shockers.
The bottom line is that when the Bulls and Heat are healthy, they are indisputably the two best teams in the East. This is how it has been the past couple of years, and this is how it will be once Rose returns to his usual self.
Truthfully, many thought that the Bulls would mightily struggle without Rose and then hope his return could perhaps enable them to squeak into the playoffs.
Well, "squeaking" into the playoffs shouldn't be of any concern for Chicago. The Bulls are currently the No. 5 seed and could easily vault themselves up higher upon Rose's return.
The reality is that the Eastern Conference is weak and there are only a limited number of teams that are scary.
The Boston Celtics grow less and less formidable as the years go on. The Knicks have offensive potency, but three losses to the Rose-less Bulls don't foreshadow anything promising.
The Nets have playmakers, but their lack of playoff experience is a vital concern.
And the Pacers are defensively competent, but is 22-year-old Paul George already cut out to lead this team to a deep playoff run?
Further, while the Heat do boast a conference-best record of 26-12, their consistent lack of interior rebounding could pose major problems down the road.
This all-around weakness in the East exclaims why Rose's return reshapes the Conference. The Rose-less Bulls are currently a legitimate threat in this depleted conference. How much more will the Bulls be a threat once they have their high-flying guard back?
Who will represent the Eastern Conference in the 2013 NBA Finals?
Quite frankly, it wouldn't be shocking to see Rose's return elevate the Bulls not just to the Eastern Conference Finals, but also to the NBA Finals and perhaps the championship podium.
*Stats used in this article were as of January 21, 2013.