With a 7-3 record since New Year's Day and the team finally finding its offensive groove, it's pretty easy to get swept up in the Chicago Bulls' hype as an NBA Finals darkhorse.
The driving force behind the Bulls' ascent has being oft-maligned forward Carlos Boozer. Returning to peak form in January, Boozer has averaged 22.0 points, 11.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists while finally embracing his role as Tom Thibodeau's top-scoring option.
With stalwarts Joakim Noah and Luol Deng continuing to provide steadiness in 40-minute per night increments, the Bulls are rounding into form at the right time.
There's just one thing missing: Derrick Rose. Chicago's star point guard is getting healthier by the minute and is "very close" to returning to full-contact practices, according to Thibodeau (per NBA.com).
Though there's no timetable currently set for his return, everything seems in order for John Lucas' prediction of a late-February comeback happening. Assuming that Rose will make his return at home (which of course he will), that leaves three relatively realistic return dates: Feb. 21 against the Miami Heat, Feb. 26 versus the Cleveland Cavaliers and Feb. 28 against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Keeping all predictions grounded (and because it would be an awesome story), let's assume Rose returns against the Sixers. That would give him 24 games to return to form in time for the playoffs.
In theory, that should be enough time for Rose to get himself in playoff shape and gain some semblance of trust in his knee.
The Eastern Conference also looks ripe for the taking. The Miami Heat look like the only steadily elite team in the conference, but have started to show signs wear. Dwyane Wade told ESPN's Brian Windhorst that he misses shooting 20-plus times per game "every day," evoking some pundits to wonder whether Pat Riley's famous "disease of me" theory has started to creep in for the Heat.
If internal dissent rears its ugly head in the playoffs, Miami may well play itself out of a repeat championship.
Could Rose lead the Bulls—the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed each of the past two seasons—to a shocking NBA Finals berth? It's looking increasingly possible, but it should not even be the slightest concern of the Bulls franchise.
The first (and only) priority should be getting Rose healthy and confident heading into the 2013-14 season. Anything else needs to be seen as gravy and the team needs to stay steadfast in its long-term plans.
No one would be mindless enough to suggest that the Bulls have been or will rush Rose back in any way. But we've seen countless numbers of times how determined athletes are to play through injury or to return too soon.
Once in a playoff atmosphere, the desire to stay on the field (or court) only rises—as we saw with Robert Griffin III during the NFL playoffs. Under no circumstances should Chicago allow Rose to dictate the pace of his rehab, even come May and June.
Remember, Rose's return will be far different than just about any other NBA player coming back from an ACL tear. He isn't Ricky Rubio, a guy who is so skilled in the passing game that losing a half step wouldn't cripple his game.
An inordinate amount of Rose's effectiveness comes from his otherworldly athleticism, something that will take a combination of patience and trust to regain. According to basketball-reference, Rose's most-used area on the floor has been at the rim in three of his four NBA seasons.
The quickness and athleticism won't come back quickly. For that reason, it seems pretty unlikely that we'll see Derrick Rose resemble anything close to Derrick Rose this season.
What's more, there is some mitigating evidence that suggests the Bulls' solid first half is somewhat being propped up by a weak schedule.
Schedule strength is almost wholly relative in the NBA. The 10 teams with the hardest schedules all reside in the Western Conference thanks, where there's better strength and depth. But the Bulls have benefited from playing the third-weakest schedule of any Eastern Conference playoff team thus far.
With an upcoming gauntlet in early February where they play seven straight playoff teams, six of which on the road, the Bulls' schedule luck is about to run out. All it would take is one bad stretch to remove Chicago from being a championship darkhorse and place the team in a matchup against the Heat in the first round.
That's what makes keeping perspective so important.
The Bulls' recent ascent is nice, but it cannot distract from the long-term goal. Get Rose healthy and comfortable playing on an NBA floor, and allow a playoff run to be a nice surprise if it happens.
Any other strategy is simply asking for disaster.
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