When Rose went down with a torn ACL against the Philadelphia 76ers in last season's playoffs, the Bulls weren’t able to recover, eventually losing the series in six games. With its best player on the shelf, Chicago is a different team.
No amount of offseason moves could have prepared the Bulls for a 2012-13 season without Rose. They overcame the challenges of the first half of the season, but a recent 4-8 skid is the writing on the wall. If Rose doesn’t return in time to be prepared for the playoffs, Chicago stands little chance of advancing past the first round.
In a February 13 report by Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today Sports, Rose was quoted as saying he may not be back this season:
I don't have a set date. I'm not coming back until I'm 110%. Who knows when that can be? It can be within a couple of weeks. It could be next year. It could be any day. It could be any time. It's just that I'm not coming back until I'm ready.
I am by no means suggesting Rose should rush back and endanger his professional career or his health. He needs to do what is best for him, regardless of how that affects Chicago.
Still, the Bulls can’t hope for a huge second-half surge this season; the talent just isn’t there. Chicago has a very good roster, but it’s lacking the superstar scorer who can take the team over the top.
Nate Robinson and Kirk Hinrich have been makeshift replacements in Rose’s absence. While both have played well enough to earn their keep, there’s no denying the void with Rose on the sidelines. Neither Robinson nor Hinrich is the kind of disruptive scorer who can dictate how opponents play defense.
Where will the Bulls finish the regular season if Rose doesn't return this year?
The Bulls had a chance to make a deal before the February 21 trade deadline to limit the damage. J.J. Redick was openly available on the trade market, as were a handful of other perimeter scorers. They stood pat, though, likely due in part to a desire to not add to a payroll that will exceed the luxury tax this year (via the Chicago Tribune).
Even before their recent slide, the Bulls weren’t in an ideal position to challenge for the Eastern Conference title this year. Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer have played well all season, but the roster lacks the elite scorer to close the gap.
At 32-25, the Bulls are currently in possession of the sixth seed in the East with only a 3.5-game advantage over the No. 8 Milwaukee Bucks. If they can’t find a way to augment the loss of production that Rose would otherwise be providing, they could still slide out of the sixth spot.
Much has been made of the “distraction” caused by talk of Rose’s absence (via the Chicago Tribune). Tom Thibodeau doesn’t put much stock in it, and neither should anyone else. Chicago's problem isn’t related to losing focus and being distracted by Rose’s absence.
The real issue is production, and the Bulls aren’t getting enough of it. If Rose can’t return relatively soon, it may be too late to expect any semblance of a playoff run for the Bulls when the postseason arrives.