Will Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer lead the Bulls deep into the playoffs?
Despite a slew of injuries, the Chicago Bulls have still comprised one of the better records in the Eastern Conference.
But, do they have enough firepower to make a deep playoff run? What should their expectations be for the 2013 Playoffs?
This question is largely dependent upon health, namely 2010-11 MVP Derrick Rose. If Rose returns, the Bulls suddenly become a legitimate contender who is capable of ousting anybody.
According to ESPN's Nick Friedell, Rose has yet to rule out a return. Yet, with limited games left in the regular season, it's seeming less and less likely that Rose will be in uniform come playoff time. In this slideshow, we will assume Rose will be absent from Chicago's rotation.
The Rose-less Bulls have still been a competitive bunch throughout 2012-13, though. They've notched some eye-popping wins against elite opponents, including two wins over the star-studded Miami Heat.
Therefore, their playoff potential is rather difficult to gauge. The following slides chart realistic expectations for the fickle Bulls. Which squad will show up once the playoffs tip off?
The Bulls own one of the league's stingiest defenses (third in points allowed per game), feature two All-Stars (Joakim Noah and Luol Deng) and possess one of the game's best coaches in Tom Thibodeau.
These ingredients should enable them to win their opening-round series, even if they lack a true superstar in the fold minus Rose.
In fact, it would be highly disappointing if they don't escape the first round.
This issue is amplified when considering the Bulls' likely first-round opponent, the Brooklyn Nets. The Bulls are 3-1 against Brooklyn on the season, most recently gutting out a 92-90 road victory with a depleted lineup.
Therefore, it's safe to say the Bulls know the recipe to defeat the Nets. It is actually a favorable matchup for Chicago, even if Brooklyn ends up carrying home-court advantage.
Because of this, Bulls fans should not be satisfied with anything less than a second-round appearance. Their core has built up enough momentum to make noise in the postseason, and their likely opponent is a very reasonable draw.
Jimmy Butler is amidst a breakout past couple months, contributing successfully on both ends of the floor and compiling more and more confidence by the day.
His value will be on distinct display once the playoffs open. His playing style is suited for the grind of April, May and June.
His gritty defense and activity on the boards can be X-factors in any game. Watch the video of him shutting down Kobe Bryant. If he can suffocate Kobe, he can suffocate seemingly any shooting guard he's assigned.
Plus, his improved offensive game, particularly his three-point jumper (shot 42 percent from distance in March, up from 28 percent in February), should raise eyebrows amid the postseason's drama.
Butler's already proven himself, but his continued emergence should be expected as soon as the opening round begins. Don't be surprised if his playoff performance solidifies him as the future starting shooting guard alongside Rose.
If the Bulls find themselves making major noise in the first round and beyond, then it's essentially guaranteed that Butler will be in the thick of things.
Carlos Boozer has had a highly effective campaign, but Bulls fans won't be fully endeared to the 31-year-old until he performs like a top-notch power forward in the postseason.
Unfortunately, he has been inconsistent during both the 2011 and 2012 playoffs. In 2011, he averaged just 12.6 points per game while shooting a lackluster 43 percent from the field. 2012 wasn't much better: 13.5 PPG with a 42 percent field-goal percentage.
This must end, and it's realistic to assume that it will. He has been carrying the load offensively for much of 2012-13, appearing like he has found a comfortable niche. This should transition smoothly into the first round.
Furthermore, it's not like the Bulls need Boozer to be dominant. They just need him to be consistent. He needs to be a steady force in the low post and tally averages in the range of 15-17 PPG and 8-10 rebounds per game.
They simply can't afford for him to mysteriously disappear in games, because the Bulls will need his scoring potency. They are currently dead last in points per game (92.8), and Boozer must be relied upon during stretches in which the offense is amidst a drought.
This consistency will go far in regard to Chicago's playoff potential. If the Utah Jazz version of Boozer emerges, then the Bulls could perhaps exceed their expectations.
The positive to the Bulls likely attaining the fourth or fifth seed is that they'll avoid playing the Indiana Pacers (who Chicago is 1-3 against) or the red-hot New York Knicks right away. The Nets are much more appealing.
The downside is that, if they win, they'll meet the Heat in the second round. This means their playoff glory will most likely be short-lived.
It isn't sensible to conclude the Bulls will displace the Heat, even when considering that they've played them tough in their recent regular-season matchups. In a seven-game series, Miami's three superstars trump Chicago's zero superstars without Rose.
At the same time, it is rational for Bulls fans to expect a quality series, in which the Bulls steal a couple games because of their discipline and toughness.
This is a likelihood because the Bulls have defensive stoppers (Deng and Butler) who can limit LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Plus, Chicago's aggressiveness on the boards frequently gives the Heat problems (out-rebounded Miami 43-31 in their March win).
These intangibles should enable this to be a respectable series. Don't anticipate a shocker, but do anticipate some feisty battles.
Another intriguing expectation centers upon the Bulls' direction for the future.
The playoff performances of certain role players should help Bulls management determine who should stick around for 2013-14. This should also help them identify potential holes that need to be addressed.
For instance, Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed are all free agents come the summer. Will their postseason play demand they remain next season? Or will upgrades be sought at specific spots?
Another potential development is if Chicago will decide to explore trades over the summer. If Butler continues his rise, does this make Deng expendable? Should the Bulls then dangle Deng's name in trade talks in the offseason?
We don't know the answer to these questions now, but a realistic expectation is that we will know these answers based on what transpires in the postseason.
The grind of the playoffs will help the Bulls foresee their direction, enabling them to discern which pieces are imperative in regard to their future outlook.
We must at least consider how things will change if Rose is in the lineup. Truthfully, his presence is the looming X-factor concerning the Eastern Conference playoffs.
If he not only returns, but regains his usual form, the Bulls suddenly receive a completely different set of expectations.
Instead of anticipating a second-round exit, Bulls fans should set their sights higher. With the way they match up against Miami, it is reasonable to expect a seven-game second-round series against them.
And it wouldn't be shocking for Chicago to be the victors.
If Chicago's defense adequately limits Miami offensively, and Rose provides a needed offensive jolt, then perhaps the Bulls will stun the NBA universe and bid farewell to the defending champions.
This happening remains unlikely because the Bulls need the MVP-version of Rose as well as steady contributions from everybody else.
But if everyone is healthy, the Bulls would enter a second-round bout against Miami with high hopes. Maybe they would peak at just the right time, with Rose leading the way.
Perhaps such a development would not only lead to ousting Miami but also vault them to the NBA pinnacle.
One thing is for sure: Rose would make the playoffs much more exciting, which would be great for the NBA. He would add necessary drama to the Eastern Conference, and his presence could suddenly spark Chicago past anybody.
No matter what, he would most definitely present Chicago with an entirely different set of dreams and expectations. We can only hope this happens.