With Derrick Rose back in the fold for 2014, the Bulls must focus on several other key areas.
After Derrick Rose's 2012-13 season of rehabilitation and recovery, the Chicago Bulls expect their star fully ready to lead the way in 2013-14. But there are a few other issues for the team to ponder before The Return finally does happen.
Chicago managed to finish with the East's fifth-best record this past season without Rose, but the roster may fill out much differently next year. The Bulls' top postseason guard, Nate Robinson, will likely move on this summer, and big man Carlos Boozer is always a candidate on whom the team can use its amnesty clause. Should Rose be worried about his supporting cast next year?
And then it comes down to Rose himself. All the time spent in recovery would lead one to believe he'll be back better than ever. But will he?
The 2013 Bulls were capable of very little on offense. This will likely change next season, but how much?
Since hiring head coach Tom Thibodeau prior to the 2010-11 season, the Bulls have been a top-six team in defensive efficiency each year. Defending is clearly the coach's top priority, and Chicago has established itself as the prototype when it comes to keeping opponents' points off the board.
In Thibodeau's first two seasons at the helm, the Bulls' offense—led by Rose—was stellar as well. Their 108.3 points per 100 plays in 2010-11 ranked 11th league-wide, and their 107.4 figure the following year ranked sixth in the association. Over those two seasons, Rose was a lock for 24 points and eight assists each night out.
Without its main contributor in 2012-13, Chicago's offense fell through the floor. And the basement. The team came in at 23rd in offensive efficiency.
Without Rose, the distribution duties fell primarily on Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson. The team's leading scorers were Luol Deng with 16.5 and Carlos Boozer with 16.2 points per game. For comparison, in 2010-11—Rose's last full season—Rose averaged 25 points per contest, but his distributing skills allowed for both Boozer and Deng to drop more than 17 per night (17.4 for Deng and 17.5 for Boozer).
This year, the Bulls will likely drop shooting guard Rip Hamilton, who morphed from missing piece to washed up has-been in record time. The team will likely look to free agency or the draft to find a starting 2, unless Thibs chooses to insert Jimmy Butler there, where he would be slightly out of position.
The Bulls will be among the top of the league in defense. That much we know. What we don't know is how the offense will shake out next season. Rose will score his points, and has the ability to dish, but will he have the weapons beside him in red and white?
And if he does, what kind of team will the Bulls be offensively? The team dropped from fourth in three-point percentage during 2011-12 to 21st this past year. A career 31 percent shooter from downtown, Rose has never earned his paycheck from the arc—that's usually where his teammates have come into play.
But where is that support coming from in 2014? Kyle Korver has long since fled to Atlanta, and Hamilton's career very well may have finished in Rose's absence.
Outside of Kirk Hinrich, Jimmy Butler was the only guaranteed-to-return Bull who shot above 33 percent from three-point range, and he only attempted 1.3 per contest.
The personnel calls for an outside-in attack, with Deng, Boozer and Noah the primary recipients of Rose dimes. If Boozer isn't in Chicago next season, that only adds to the uncertainty.
Rose will improve the Chicago offense on his own, but he can only be part of the solution. Will the team do enough to work the offense back to the heights reached in 2010-11? Or will they continue to be the defensively elite but offensively inept team that the 2013 Bulls were, with Rose's individual talent thrown i?
The latter may be enough to win basketball games. A lot of them. But championship teams have very few weaknesses, if any. And an offense without direction begs to be defeated in May and June when defenses lock down the most.
Robinson is unlikely to return to Chicago in 2013-14.
Derrick Rose is a lock at the point guard position for Chicago. That much we know. The shooting guard position is an entirely different story.
Jimmy Butler was called upon as the starting 2 late in the regular season, and that carried into the postseason as well. The 6'7" Houston native may be a better fit, however, at the small forward spot, where he played the bulk of his minutes last season, according to 82games.
Nate Robinson carried Chicago's offense throughout the postseason. He played his way into the starting point guard position at postseason's end by averaging 16 points, four assists and three rebounds in 12 playoff games. Robinson also has experience at shooting guard, but will likely command long-term offers this summer—ones that Chicago is unlikely to match.
Robinson actually bid his unofficial farewell on Instagram after the Bulls were eliminated, saying, "I'm a miss the (excretory emoji) outta the chi ...gotta thank all the Chicago bulls fans thanks for the best year ever!!!" So it's safe to assume that GM Gar Forman will be on the lookout for an alternative in the backcourt during the coming months.
The team, which finished 23rd in offensive efficiency, will be losing Robinson and possibly Marco Belinelli, an unrestricted free agent and career 39 percent shooter from thee-point range.
Luol Deng, the Bulls' leading scorer in the regular season, is under contract through next season. So is Carlos Boozer, but not without the looming possibility of being cut with the amnesty provision at any given moment. For what it's worth, the Chicago Tribune reported in February that the team won't use this lifeline in an attempt to free up cap flexibility. Boozer is owed more than $32 million over the next two seasons.
The team may look to expand backcourt talent via the draft—Chicago owns the 20th overall pick. Ricky Ledo is one option—a 6'7" scoring threat out of Providence. Jamaal Franklin, Allen Crabbe and Tim Hardaway Jr. are other backcourt options to nab at 20.
Free agency is another avenue for Chicago to explore, but as luxury tax payers, the Bulls will be among the bottom-feeders this summer. They'll have just the roughly $3 million-per-year mini-MLE to spend, along with vets' minimum contracts. B/R's Michael Walsh explored potential fits the team may find this summer.
It won't be easy, but the Bulls will need to figure out a way to improve the offense in 2014. Rose will undoubtedly provide a boost, but scoring to supplement No. 1 in the backcourt would be welcomed.
The Rose-led Bulls could be Miami's biggest challenge to escape the East on top.
During the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Chicago managed to finish higher in the East than the eventual-champion Miami Heat. The Bulls won 50 games while losing just 16, and split the season series with Miami, at two a piece.
Even a Rose-less Bulls team this past year was able to beat the Heat twice in the regular season. They ultimately fell, thanks to additional injury woes, to the champs in five games during the East semis. Though the team did win 45 games—fifth-best in the East—and a playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets.
Despite a facelift to the supporting cast next season, lofty expectations to repeat their 2011-12 production will be inevitable. After all, Rose is a former MVP, a $100 million man and about to enter the prime of his career.
The conference will be undoubtedly more competitive next season, and not just because of Rose's return. The Indiana Pacers will welcome Danny Granger—their former No. 1 option—back into their lineup, and Rajon Rondo will run the show for the Boston Celtics once again. Andrew Bynum will presumably be healthy, too, should he re-sign with the Philadelphia 76ers.
The pressure will be on Rose and Chicago to not only compete, but outplay their conference competition, and meet with the Miami Heat in a postseason bout for the East title. Can they get back to their level of play from two seasons ago?
The Derrick Rose saga of 2013 will need to be swept under the rug.
If you have access to cable or the Internet, you know all about the Derrick Rose dramatics of this past year. A mid-season return turned to a late-season one, and by playoff time the NBA was still Rose-less, despite the 24-year-old being cleared to play in March. As has been well-documented, Rose never played a second in 2012-13.
As the Chicago offense struggled to find any sense of direction, 2011-12's seventh-highest scorer and he of the eighth-highest PER watched idly from the bench. It was a truly depressing scene. It all culminated with the worst and best day of Rose's season on May 15—worst in the sense that he was nothing more than a spectator as his squad was overwhelmingly eliminated in Miami, and best in the sense that it was finally over.
Was it the right move? That's not for anyone to say but Rose himself. But that'll be the inevitable debate in the weeks leading to his return next season. Hopefully for the Bulls, Rose puts the critics to rest early on.
After a full year away from the game, Rose should be as good as, if not better than, before.
It's a question that's unavoidable after any torn ACL: Will the player ever be the same again?
Shumpert returned to the Knicks and was immediately inserted into the starting lineup during January. It took the sophomore about two months to fully regain confidence in his knee and his game. In the meantime, he was an indecisive, awkward ball-stopper who disrupted the team's offensive flow.
From January 17 to March 17, Shumpert shot a disappointing 34 percent from the field, 37 percent from three-point range and 65 percent from the stripe, equating to fewer than six points per game in nearly 21 minutes.
That was the inevitable adjustment period. But after Shumpert proved to himself that he was the same player as the first-year man who earned First Team All-Rookie honors a season prior, the narrative shifted completely.
Over the season's final month, Shumpert's minutes bumped from 21 to 24. He shot 47 percent from the floor in that span, and 44 percent from the arc without missing a free throw.
In the playoffs, the Chicago native averaged 28 minutes of burn and was perhaps the team's most consistent player through two rounds. His defense never wavered, and he was able to come away with 13 takeaways in 12 games while checking the opponent's best ball-handler on most occasions.
Shumpert's return was officially completed with a highlight-reel putback slam against Indiana in the conference semifinals. The 22-year-old followed a missed shot by going up strong, taking off of his repaired left knee, and throwing it down.
Rose's situation differs in that he bypassed the entire adjustment period Shumpert went though. He instead practiced at full speed in hopes of working out all kinks in practice time.
With more than a full year away from NBA action, Rose's knee should be at full strength, and he likely has developed confidence in his game on the practice court, comparable to what Shumpert did in game action. That's not to say one or the other was correct in his choice—they simply chose different routes to recovery.
It would be foolish to expect a flawless return from injury for Rose, but one can't imagine it would be long before the former MVP returns to dominant form. It won't be until then that we can finally put this entire debate in the rear-view for good.
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