It bears mentioning that they have a statistical chance even without him. According to basketball-reference, they have a 7.7 percent chance of reaching the finals and a 0.7 percent chance of winning it all. John Hollinger gives them an 8.0 percent chance of reaching the finals and a 1.5 percent chance of taking the title, about the same as the Memphis Grizzlies.
Does Derrick Rose have what it takes to take them from "very dark horse" to "favorites"? Before answering that question, let's look and see what he brings, and needs to bring, to help the Bulls to make that transition.
The Chicago Bulls' biggest weakness comes on the offensive side of the court. They are last in the league in unassisted field goals. This means that the Bulls struggle when they can't create a shot through passing the ball.
Nate Robinson, the only player they have that can consistently create for himself, is streaky. He has 21 games where he shot .400 or worse, 18 where he shot .500 or better and the other 10 he was in the middle. It's why Bulls fans wonder whether it's "good Nate" or "bad Nate" who is coming out from night to night.
The greatest weakness the Bulls have is the lack of a consistent and reliable scorer who can create offense for himself. Derrick Rose only happens to be one of the best in the business at that very thing. In fact, during his MVP season, when he was last healthy, his 516 unassisted field goals (determined by subtracting assists from total field goals) were the most in the NBA.
Basketball is a beautifully simple and amazingly complex game all at the same time.
It is amazingly complex because at times, it is like five people playing one simultaneous game of chess, each responding to the moves of others and anticipating what move each of their moves will provoke their opponents to make. The Bulls excel here because they are coached by chess-master Tom Thibodeau.
No matter how well you play and how crisply you execute, though, it's not always enough to get it done.
That's where the simple beauty comes in. Sometimes you need that guy who can just come in, kick the board, send the pieces flying and say, "I'm taking over from here."
Kind of like this.
LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant are that kind of player. Derrick Rose is that kind of player. And right now, the only thing that separates the Bulls from the elite teams in the league is that they are playing without that kind of player.
One way of measuring a player's impact on the game is to look at what the team does when a player is on or off the court. Because of this, some have argued that Rose, while an impact player on offense, gives up something on defense, citing the fact that the Bulls' defensive rating was worse while Rose was on the court.
The truth is that the Bulls are a better team on both offense and defense. The misconception comes because C. J. Watson spent a higher percentage of his time playing with the Bulls' best defensive unit. Their individual numbers are revealing.
Rose's Synergy numbers in 2011-12 were .77 points per play against to Watson's .88 overall and .75 to Watson's 1.06 in isolation. His opponent player efficiency rating was an elite-level 11.9 to Watson's 19.3.
Rose also spent more minutes with Richard Hamilton, the inferior shooting guard on defense. If you take Rose's numbers with the other three key players on the Bulls and compare them with what Watson did with the same group, it's an interesting result.
Last year, when Derrick Rose played with Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, the foursome had an offensive rating of 106.2 and a defensive rating of 95.9. When you swap out Rose for backup C.J. Watson, that offensive rating fell to 99.3 and the offensive rating rose to 102.1.
This year, with that trio and Kirk Hinrich, the offensive rating is 98.9 and the defensive rating is 98.1 With Nate Robinson, they have an offensive rating of 96.9 and a defensive rating 110.6.
There are other lineups that Thibodeau has played with, tweaked and massaged to effectively overcome the absence of Rose. He's done some serious chess playing, and that's a big part of the reason they are so successful, even without Rose.
But make no mistake about it, Rose makes a massive difference on both ends of the court, and he helps make the the Bulls' other key players more effective as well. He's the type of guy that kicks the holy tarnation out of the chess board.
His presence on the court can make a difference of at least seven points per 100 possessions on offense and three points per 100 possessions on defense, and that's if you take the best numbers of what the other point guards have put up.
Even if you figure that Rose plays only 20-25 minutes a game, and account for the fact that he might just be 80 percent, that would translate to somewhere around a net total of five points per game. Come postseason, he would be playing more minutes, and that number could climb.
The Pacers are the only other team that has a true "add" without subtraction. Danny Granger comes back soon, but Granger isn't close to Rose's level. And the other problem is that Granger is going to create some confusion with Paul George, who has become a star in Granger's absence. Certainly, Granger will help, but not as much as Rose.
The Bulls are unique in adding a player without subtraction or redundancy. He will help the Bulls in there weakest area—shot creating—and in their strongest area—defense. That's quite an addition for a team that isn't losing anything. That's why while other fans will be eying the trade market, Bulls fans are eyeing the return.
Two things teams really need to win a title are an elite-level defense and a bona fide "board-kicking" superstar. The Chicago Bulls, with a healthy Derrick Rose, are the only team that has both of those things.
The Miami Heat and New York Knicks have teams with elite superstar players, but they are teams whose defenses have faltered this year as they've gone to more small ball. Miami's defensive rating has them ranked 13th and the Knicks are 15th.
Indiana has a team with an elite defense, although it has no true superstar player (though George is certainly on his way).
Derrick Rose is a game-changer.
The question is, will it be enough to vault them from dark-horse status to 'favorite" status? At present, the Bulls are 10th in the NBA with a total of 94 points in margin of victory. If we account for that hypothetical five points per game, that would vault the Bulls to third with 347 points per game.
That's certainly not outlandish since in the two previous seasons, Chicago outscored its opponents by 570 points per season, a combined total of 1,140 over two years, which is the NBA's best by more than 10 percent.
Which potential Bulls opponent would give them the biggest postseason challenge?
That should certainly be enough to vault them from "dark horse" to "favorite" status, though it would be important to distinguish here between "a" favorite and "the" favorite.
Miami still has to be the biggest favorite. They are the reigning champions, and until they're beaten, they hold the title of "the" favorites.
However, there are a handful of elite teams who have a valid chance at winning a title, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers.
After Miami, Chicago, with Derrick Rose, has the best chance of any team in the East to make it to the finals.
If they can make it there, they'd have a decent shot at winning the title, although any of the top three Western Conference teams would presumably be favorites over the Bulls. That's enough to make them "a favorite," even if they aren't "the favorite."