Derrick Rose's return next season will certainly create buzz across the NBA spectrum, and a healthy portion of that buzz will be directed toward this question: Does Rose's return instantly make the Chicago Bulls title contenders?
There are layers to this discussion and a bevy of different opinions. However, we recently received some acute information from another team: the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers just gave the star-studded Miami Heat all they could handle. They pushed them to seven games, and if it weren't for a LeBron James layup at the buzzer in Game 1, the series could've easily gone in Indiana's favor.
Despite the series defeat, the Pacers proved that it won't take a team of multiple superstars to oust the Heat (this was already the case when the Dallas Mavericks upended Miami in the 2011 finals). Indiana's gritty, defensively rigorous style of play coupled with their size and length posed problems for the boys from South Beach.
Paul George is surely developing into a superstar, but the Pacers certainly don't have a roster laden with marquee names. They simply have a defensive identity and well-constructed strategy in limiting Miami's efficiency.
So, how does this connect to the Bulls?
The Pacers and Bulls play very similarly. Both are top-notch defensive squads who rely on this tenacity.
Plus, when the Bulls are healthy, they are arguably better than Indiana. The Pacers won merely 49 games this season. In 2010-11 and 2011-12, the Bulls led the league in wins during the regular season. What's more, both of those campaigns included injuries that the Bulls overcame.
This is all relevant because the Pacers unveiled that the Bulls are, perhaps, much closer to dethroning Miami than some believe. If the Pacers are causing troubles for the Heat, then a healthy Bulls squad—led by a rejuvenated Rose—would be Miami's biggest challengers in 2013-14.
Some fans and analysts have lobbied for Chicago's need for another superstar—somebody who can take the pressure off Rose. However, this might not actually be a glaring need. The Pacers displayed that multiple All-Stars is not necessarily a must in competing against the best.
Therefore, the Bulls may already have the ingredients needed to contend with anybody. They just need the health.
Their lack of health has made it quite tricky to gauge their championship hopes. Their past two playoff appearances have been derailed because of injuries, and so, the verdict remains hazy on their title potential.
With that said, the Bulls have proven that when their core figures are all healthy, they're an elite ballclub. Rose's return coupled with consistent well-being from other key figures will instantly make Chicago a team likely to win 60-plus games.
Furthermore, the development of Jimmy Butler gives them a well-rounded starting five of Rose, Butler, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. If Chicago gets a healthy run with this group in the 2014 playoffs, it will be scary for any opponent, including the Heat.
The key matter in this whole discussion, though, is health. We can’t ever assume they’ll be at full strength. They’ve developed the reputation of an injury-prone ballclub, and nobody will truly fear Chicago until they reveal that they’ve conquered the injury bug.
Truthfully, if the injuries mount early next season, then coach Tom Thibodeau will seriously need to rethink some of his schemes. It’s no secret that he rides his starters for hefty minutes. Such usage could certainly play a factor in the injury theme at hand. There’s something to be said about letting off the gas in certain games, even if it results in a few extra regular-season losses.
Their health in the playoffs is something that’s an absolute must come next spring. It would a shame for Bulls fans to experience a third straight playoffs featuring shattered dreams due to injuries.
With all of this in view, Chicago can only hope they’ll enter next April with everybody in uniform. If they do, they're likely the biggest threats to the Heat. They would pose the same difficulties for Miami as the Pacers, but the Bulls’ alpha dog (Rose) is superior to Indiana’s (George).
With Rose back and the rest of Chicago’s core intact, the Heat have much to fear. The unfortunate truth is that the Miami has luckily evaded a healthy Bulls team the past two playoffs. There’s no telling what would’ve happened the past two postseasons if Chicago’s depth chart wasn’t slimmed.
Hopefully, Chicago gets a chance in 2014. If they do, the NBA universe shouldn’t be surprised at all to see Chicago eliminate the “Big Three,” with Rose leading the way.