Derrick Rose has been working diligently to rehab his knee this season, and now his return is just around the corner. His teammates have been working hard too in his absence, and in so doing, they've learned a lot about who they are as a team. Those lessons will make them a better team in the end.
They have learned lessons about one another.
Some have learned things about themselves as individuals.
They have learned lessons about themselves as a group.
Overall, they are ready for the turn, and perhaps, even ready for a title.
The lessons they've learned are ranked in order of how much they will help toward that endeavor.
Unless otherwise noted, stats were obtained form NBA.com/STATS.
Sometimes I think that Tom Thibodeau could grab your average 10-year-old YMCA team, and turn them into an elite NBA defense within two months. The man knows defense.
In the 23 years where he has been the architect of an NBA defense, his team has been in the top 10 in defensive rating 20 times. His defenses have also ranked in the top 20 percent of the league in each of the last 11 years, and in the top three in eight of the last 11.
He's done this with a variety of players and teams but always finds a way to make things work. Part of the reason for that is that he turns players who can't play defense into players who can, or at least who can do well enough that they don't get exposed.
The most recent two examples are Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli. When they first arrived this offseason, they were constantly getting shredded, but as they've learned the system, they've become reliable enough that their offensive talents can be utilized.
Over the first two months of the season as the Bulls were struggling, the Bulls' defensive rating with Belinelli on the court was 99.5 and with Robinson on the court, it was an abysmal (for them) 101.0.
Then as the two started figuring things out, the Bulls defense tightened up when they played. Since then, their defense with Belinelli on the court is 94.1 and with Robinson, it's a meager 92.5.
Carlos Boozer won the Player of the Week award on Jan. 20.
His January was what the Bulls had always wanted from him, averaging 19.5 points and 10.1 rebounds for the month. That kind of production alone is sufficient to allay some of the criticism.
Even his defense was respectable. The Bulls gave up only 97.7 points per 100 possessions while he was on the court for the month. That's down from 99.3 prior to January, or 98.9 last year, or 100.9 the year before that.
In short, he's also playing the best defense of his Bulls career.
Furthermore, Boozer has come up big at the end of games, such as his big steal against the Heat which helped to seal the win, addressing the criticism that when the going gets tough, Boozer disappears.
He is second among NBA power forwards with at least 50 minutes in clutch-time scoring (score within five points and five minutes or less left in the game) at 24.7 points per 48 minutes. He's also leading the NBA in clutch rebounding, averaging 21.3 rebounds per 48.
His 46.0 combined points and rebounds per 48 minutes in the clutch is seventh in the NBA and first among all big men (power forwards or centers).
Considering that the big strikes against Boozer were that he disappeared in the clutch, and that he didn't play defense, these are welcome signs to Bulls fans, and those signs have some fans beginning to dare to hope that Boozer might come through in the postseason .
When Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Kirk Hinrich all were out for back-to-back two games against the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks, fans started to wonder if Benny the Bull might have to suit up. There was no way the Bulls were going to win either game.
Instead, they came just short of pulling off the win in Brooklyn, and then, down the stretch, the players who had played roughly one billion minutes in less than 27 hours had all the energy down the stretch as the Bulls just plain plucked the Hawks in the second half.
With a lineup that featured Nate Robinson, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, the Bulls sliced and diced the Hawks like a thousand wily ninjas armed with Ginsu knives. The Bulls were cutting everywhere, and doing so effectively.
As lethal as they were cutting all over the place on offense, they were just as as suffocating on defense.
The foursome combined to score 99.7 points per 48 minutes while holding their opponents to just 83.9 points.
Adding Derrick Rose to that foursome would only make it harder to defend them.
The thing is, apart from Derrick Rose and Nate Robinson, the Bulls don't have a lot of players who handle the ball, but they do have players who are athletes. Watching the athleticism unleashed upon the Hawks showed that the Bulls are more than equipped to go small when they need to.
If you've run out of good things to say about Jimmy Butler, you're just not trying hard enough.
Really. You're not.
When Luol Deng went out with a hamstring injury, Butler stepped up immediately, and he was instrumental in helping the Bulls to win in overtime, leading the them in scoring in the fourth quarter and overtime.
And thus the Butler era was ushered in.
Since his breakout, Butler has been a sensation. In the nine games since, Butler is second on the team in points, rebounds and steals.
Butler's defense was always noteworthy, and many thought he would nearly be able to fill the shoes of the departed Ronnie Brewer. Few expected him to play even better, but he has. His "Kobe-stopping" performance came in his second start ever.
What has been truly sterling about Butler though is that he's been a bona fide clutch scorer. His obscene .783 true shooting percentage in the clutch is second in the NBA among players who have played at least 50 minutes and are scoring at least 20 points per 48 minutes.
Butler has shown signs that he can be exactly what the Bulls missed in 2011 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat: a clutch scorer who can help take the pressure off Derrick Rose if opponents trap him.
Joakim Noah is getting a lot of well-earned credit for picking up his game this season and carrying the team.
It's true that in last month Carlos Boozer, Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler have risen up and helped share some of the load, but early on it was all Noah.
He is not the kind of player who can go for 30 points a night, but his all-around game has improved to the point where he can be argued as the best all-around center in the NBA.
He has averaged over 12 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists per game this year, while maintaining a defensive rating of well below 100 at 96. If he maintains those numbers, he will be the first center to accomplish the feat in the three-point era.
By his all-around play and being whatever the Bulls needed him to be whenever they need him to be it, Noah learned that with his own unique style of play, he can lead the Bulls, and even carry a team when needed.
The importance of having a second player who can carry the team when needed can't be understated enough. It was a big part of the reason the Bulls fell to the Heat in 2011 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
All these things, combined with the fact Derrick Rose is coming back this year, have the Bulls positively juiced about their prospects.
In an article titled, Carlos Boozer giddy about what Bulls can be with Derrick Rose, Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times reveals the mood in the Bulls locker room around the return of Rose,
But judging from his (Rose's) mood and body language in the Bulls’ locker room and on the court in pregame warmups, he seems to know he’ll be the same player he was when he suffered the injury.
The Bulls seem to know it. And despite the troublesome spate of injuries that have sidelined Joakim Noah (foot), Boozer (hamstring) and Kirk Hinrich (elbow), the enthusiasm among the players is palpable. For good reason. Rose’s return will come with a bonus: The Bulls (29-18) have become better in his absence than even some of the players had expected.
Potash quotes Boozer, talking about the Bulls' revamped roster and how quickly it came together,
‘‘We were, too. We were all kind of concerned how fast we would get our chemistry right. But it’s just [early] February, and our chemistry is pretty awesome right now. I don’t think anybody knew it would be this fast.’’
Boozer feels that the Bulls will be better than ever once Rose returns, because of that improvement, particularly from Jimmy Butler,
Oh, yeah, because the thing with Thibs is, now he’s seen everybody else and he’s seen how good Jimmy [Butler] can be. He can trust Jimmy now, and Jimmy has that experience now.
Then there's this quote from David Aldridge of NBA.com by Richard Hamilton concerning where Rose is at,
"Derrick, he's a freak of nature, I'm serious, man. I seen him dunk one ball the other day, and I said, 'Man, you've got to be kidding.' He just went up, went up off the vertical, threw it in. And he's all humble, like, 'Ah, ha, ha.' But he's getting better every day."
The Bulls are 4-0 against the Knicks and Heat. They had the best record in the Eastern Conference in the month of January. They're chasing down the Heat and Knicks for the first seed when they were expected to be hoping for a postseason berth.
Not only that, with a suddenly explosive backcourt featuring Robinson and Belinelli to complement Rose, as well as breakout star Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have more than addressed the weakness which cost them the series against the Heat in 2011.
The reason you see this kind of optimism percolating from grizzled veterans like Rip Hamilton and Carlos Boozer is they have learned is that they can win a NBA Championship this year.
What other contender is going to have an "add" like Derrick Rose? Even if someone pulls off a shocking trade, they'll have to give up something in the process. But the Bulls are essentially gaining a top-five player in the league and losing nothing.
The Bulls, even without Rose, are emerging as a dark-horse candidate. With Rose, though, you can't blame them for the excitement building in the locker room.