The Bulls need Derrick Rose back at full strength for a chance at the title.
In the NBA, there are elite teams, lottery teams and everyone in between. You want to avoid being "in between."
Some observers insist that—sick of laboring in the middle—the Golden State Warriors conveniently lost a bunch of games in the 2011-12 season. In turn, they drafted Harrison Barnes and have climbed into this year's Western Conference playoff picture.
The elite teams include perennial title contenders like the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat. The fringe championship-caliber teams are a little harder to distinguish.
The five teams in this slideshow are perennial playoff contenders, but they don't have the necessary means to make it to the big stage of the NBA Finals. Such glaring weaknesses can range from lack of shooting to injuries, defense or just being in the wrong conference.
All of these teams have had playoff wins in recent seasons and are currently experiencing regular-season success, but their odds of becoming great don't stack up against other top-tier squads.
Unless Josh Smith plays like the superstar he can be, the Hawks won't advance past the second round.
The Atlanta Hawks are one of the quietest successful teams in recent memory, making the playoffs in each of the last five years and on their way again this year.
However, they've yet to make it past the second round in any of those five seasons. Joe Johnson, the conductor of most of those playoff runs, is now in Brooklyn, and the Hawks have rebuilt the team around Al Horford, Josh Smith and a bevy of three-point shooters.
They've succeeded so far this season, going 25-18, good for sixth right now in the Eastern Conference, but they don't appear to have what it takes to get much further than the second round.
Granted, they could steal a series against the New York Knicks or Indiana Pacers because of their three-point shooting, but true greatness will be hard to achieve unless Josh Smith blossoms into a superstar.
Seeing that he is still shooting perimeter shots, this is an extremely unlikely prospect.
It also doesn't help that Smith has had his name in the headlines regarding a possible trade (via Ken Berger of CBS Sports).
The return of Danny Granger may not matter much when it comes to the NBA Finals.
The Indiana Pacers are the No. 1 defensive team in the NBA, allowing 95.6 points per 100 possessions, according to Hoopdata.
They have missed the playoffs only five times in the past 23 seasons. The problem? They didn't win a single championship in that span.
The biggest roadblock they have this season is their lack of offense. Roy Hibbert started the season horribly, unable to make shots or execute low-post moves. But in recent weeks, the Pacers have improved markedly, thanks to David West's always-solid play and Paul George's breakout season.
Through all of that, they are ranked second-to-last in offensive efficiency, with 98.4 points per 100 possessions, according to Hoopdata.
Danny Granger is slated to come back in about a month or so, but his offensive numbers have dropped steadily in each of the last four seasons. Indiana appears to be George's team on offense now.
Although they took the Heat to the brink last season, they simply don't have the offense to get over the hump, and that's with a healthy Granger.
The Nuggets' blockbuster deal for Andre Iguodala won't get them past the first round anytime soon.
From Carmelo Anthony to Arron Afflalo to Andre Iguodala, the Denver Nuggets have always had a ton of talent but could never get close to the NBA Finals.
They've won 50-plus games four times in a row (discounting lockout season), but they've lost in the first round nine out of the past 10 times they've been in the playoffs.
Last year, they weren't able to combat the length and power of the Los Angeles Lakers, and they fell in a close seven-game series. Then in the offseason, they decided to trade for Iguodala and assemble a team so quick and explosive that it would simply overwhelm opponents.
They have now assembled a team full of very good players who management hopes will mesh together well enough to bring the franchise to the promised land.
But after Danilo Gallinari (36.4 percent from three), the Nuggets don't have a player who plays consistent minutes shooting more than 34.4 percent from beyond the arc.
And without a dominant frontcourt—while Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee are promising players, none is a force on offense—they'll have trouble against the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder.
A superbly talented player, Rudy Gay finds himself as the weak link of a budding finals contender.
After their upset of the San Antonio Spurs a couple years ago, the Grizzlies seemed poised to take the next step against the Los Angeles Clippers. But Chris Paul happened.
This year, the health of Rudy Gay seemed to be the answer to their problems, but he hasn't played up to his potential either, and he has been linked in trades throughout the year.
Even though he is averaging 17.2 points per game, his 41 percent shooting combined with a 14.39 PER doesn't bode well for the Grizzlies on offense.
Memphis seems to force the game plan to Gay rather than running a system that involves other scorers, which seems odd considering Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol form a dynamic frontcourt.
The recent trade of Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby unloads another three-point shooter from the zero they already had. While their defense may carry them for a series or two, their lack of offensive cohesion on the other end will do them in.
Toss in the big-money decisions that they have to make in the future, and even Memphis' highly regarded vice president of basketball operations, John Hollinger, won't be able to give Grizzlies fans a championship in the near future.
The Bulls have been a pleasant surprise this season, but greatness is predicated on the knee of Derrick Rose.
The delicate line between a very good Bulls team and a great one lies inside the machinery of Derrick Rose's knee.
They won 62 games with an MVP Rose and advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11. That seemed to be the beginning of what promised to be a long, fruitful career—and it can still be—but a simple jump and awkward landing significantly changed things.
Rose seems to be on his way back, but there is no way of knowing how he will fare until he plays 20-25 games on the court to get back in game shape.
The good news is that the Bulls defense hasn't skipped a beat without Rose, giving up the third-least points in the NBA. The bad news is the offense so far this season (20th in offensive efficiency).
Unlike Ricky Rubio, who is also coming back from an ACL injury, Rose's game is predicated on slashing to the basket. How many Adrian Petersons are there in this world? It's tough to find examples of players coming back full strength after ACL injuries in the NBA.
But let's take a look at what might happen if Rose does indeed come back stronger than before. A team so good on defense should make things tough for any team, even the defending champions Miami Heat. However, with a healthy Rose and a great defensive team, the Bulls still lost four games to one against the Heat in 2010. They essentially dropped LeBron on Rose and made the rest of the team try to score. They didn't.
Now without premier defender Omer Asik down low, and the Heat only getting better, it's hard to see the Bulls winning immediately in the present. And the big offensive addition for the Bulls since then? Richard Hamilton. That won't be enough.
Granted, the improvement from Joakim Noah and Luol Deng should only bolster an elite defense even more so when Rose returns. They also play in the easier conference, with the Heat presenting the only true threat.
But even the most die-hard Bulls fans must know that they lost in a short series to a Miami Heat team that isn't nearly as good as it is now. Combine that with the uncertainty of Rose's knee and the Bulls' potential to be great takes a hit.