With the Chicago Bulls mired in their worst stretch since Tom Thibodeau became head coach three seasons ago, many fans are ready to write off the Bulls from title contention. That may be a tad premature. Don't bury them just yet.
First, let's distinguish between three concepts: optimism, pessimism and realism. Some want to conflate realism with pessimism. They will argue the worst-case scenario and then say, "I'm just being realistic."
That's not realism. Realism is not pointing to the worst-case scenario because the worst case is, by definition, the worst case, which means it is no more realistic than the best possible outcome.
Being jaded is not being realistic. It's just being jaded.
On the other hand, just living in a world where unicorns poop rainbows isn't realistic either. Supposing that Derrick Rose will come back, and in his first minutes on the court will immediately be playing like he did the minutes before he went down with his knee injury is not realistic.
Realism is the balance between optimism and pessimism, but it is not the average. It takes both scenarios into account. It includes both possibility and probability. Being realistic accepts a range of outcomes, not a predesignated one.
Realism has no place in the binary-thinking Skip Baylesses of the world who believe that every question is answered by "will" or "won't" and consider "could" or "couldn't" as cop-out answers. Realism is not a cop-out. It's thoughtful.
In that context, the Chicago Bulls realistically could contend for a title. Overall, there are seven such teams in the NBA who could take home the trophy, with those other than Chicago being the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks in the East, along with the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers in the West.
Of those seven teams, the least likely is the Chicago Bulls, but there is still a chance that the Bulls could win it all. Obviously, there are some things that need to happen for that to occur.
Derrick Rose Must Return to All-Star Form
As previously stated, it's not at all realistic to think that Rose will immediately play like his MVP self. However, that does not mean he'll be a mere shadow of his former self either, or that he'll not be able to regain most of his MVP form before the playoffs begin.
Nor does it mean that as the Bulls advance through the postseason, Rose won't be able to improve.
Let's also bear in mind that when he does return, he will supposedly be at "110 percent." Both physically and mentally, he will be completely ready to play. The only things to work out will be getting into game condition and shaking off the rust. As much as possible, that will be taken care of in the five-on-five scrimmages, which are his last hurdle before real games.
Currently, according to Chris Broussard, those scrimmages are going well:
Eyewitness at D Rose's first 5-on-5 practice Monday said Rose looks "ready to go." Said Rose looks like he's able to play in games.— Chris Broussard (@Chris_Broussard) February 20, 2013
This is a critical thing to realize. People who have actually seen him play say he looks like he's "ready to go" right now. That means all those who are decrying "be patient" should be happy. That's what the Bulls are doing.
With that in mind, you have to take the good with the good. The "good" that Rose is not being rushed back, or rushing back himself, is combined with the reality that when he does come back, he'll be closer to the form that many are expecting him to be at.
So, while Rose won't be an MVP out of the box, he could be in All-Star form by the time the postseason comes around. That's just being realistic.
Secure the No. 4 Seed
For the Bulls to win a title, they'll need at least the No. 4 seed. Winning a title by winning four straight series on the road would be extremely difficult and is actually unprecedented in the current playoff format. The only team to win a title without having home court in any series was the 1995 Houston Rockets, but they only had a five-game series in the opening round.
What would be helpful to the Bulls is securing the Central Division title, a prize which is looking more difficult to grasp right now, with the Pacers building a slight 2.5-game cushion and playing like world-beaters.
But the NBA season is a long one, and teams go through ups and downs. The Pacers will eventually have a dip, and if the Bulls have Rose back and play well at the end of the season, they can close the gap.
Optimally, the Pacers would end up with the fourth seed and be forced to play the Heat in the second round, with the Bulls presumably facing the Knicks. That's not likely, but it would certainly improve the Bulls' chances of getting to the NBA Finals if the Heat and Pacers had to battle each other.
When Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng have started with Derrick Rose, the Bulls have won 85 percent of their games in the regular season. When they're healthy, they're good enough to win a title.
While the regular season doesn't "mean everything," sometimes people put too much stock in the postseason. Yes, the NBA title is the ultimate prize, but you don't see the Oklahoma City Thunder throwing up the white flag. You didn't see the Heat break up the "Big Three" after they lost to the Dallas Mavericks.
Essentially, the same Detroit Pistons and Bulls teams faced off in 1991 that faced off in 1990. The outcome was different, though.
Sometimes a series is just a series, and it's not "proof" of anything.
Essentially, two shots determined the series between the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls in 2011. Derrick Rose missed a shot that could have won one game that went into overtime. While the Heat dominated in OT, they wouldn't have if they'd already lost the game, which they would have if Rose made that shot.
In the final game, Rose missed a shot that could have sent it into overtime.
Game 2 was only a three-point margin with two minutes, 29 seconds left in the game.
The point here is that while there are many people who use that series to "prove" that Miami is some distinct level above Chicago, it is hardly proof of that.
In fact, a few balls bounce differently, and the Bulls could very well have been facing off with the Mavericks. Yes, the Heat won the series and they deserved to win it, but to use that series to "prove" that the Heat are "better" and that the Bulls could never beat the Heat is pure fallacy, especially when you consider other factors.
While the Miami Heat finally got healthy (literally during the series), the Bulls were playing hurt. Carlos Boozer was playing with turf toe, and Derrick Rose was playing with a grade-2 ankle sprain.
Again, we're being "realistic" here, and being realistic is not just being negative. If we're being predictive, which we are, we have to include that kind of information. Simply growling "excuses" doesn't magically go back in time and render perfect health to Boozer and Rose. Their health impacted the series.
Whether it was a little or a lot doesn't much matter because, as established already, there wasn't such a big difference to overcome.
There's also a common myth that the Bulls haven't done anything that would make a difference to get past the Heat. That's simply not true. You can argue that they didn't do enough, but you can't argue that they didn't do anything because there are specific moves the Bulls made to address the struggles they had against Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Specifically, they've completely changed their shooting guard situation. When the Heat were shutting down the Bulls down the stretch, they were doing so by trapping Rose and daring the Bulls to beat them with their other players. Not having a second player who could handle the ball, the Bulls struggled.
The Bulls were in dire need of a shooting guard who could shoot and guard. They had Keith Bogans and Ronnie Brewer who could guard, but not shoot. And they had Kyle Korver who could shoot, but not guard.
Now the Bulls have Richard Hamilton, Jimmy Butler, Marco Belinelli, Daequan Cook and Nate Robinson, any one of whom could be the answer to the struggles the Bulls had in 2011, as they are all far better ball-handlers than Brewer, Korver or Bogans. Hamilton, Butler and Cook are all better defenders than Korver, and Belinelli is coming along.
The backcourt, apart form Rose, is better than it was in 2011.
The Bulls are not perfect. They have weaknesses. They could use a second superstar. They could use a fourth big man. Nor are they the favorites to win the title, or even make it to the Eastern Conference Finals.
But they could beat the Heat in a series if everything goes right. They could win the Eastern Conference. They could win it all. It might not be probable, but it is possible for them to win a title, and until they are at home, they shouldn't be written off.