Where Does Healthy Derrick Rose Put Chicago Bulls in NBA's Title Race?

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 16, 2013

Derrick Rose is finally ready for NBA basketball again.

After months of everyone around the superstar saying he was clear to proceed with one of the most exciting careers in the league, the former MVP is giving himself the green light.

He's not committing to a return date just yet, but according to Jorge Sierra of HoopsHype.com, Chicago's native son has one in mind:

We will play in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil [October 12], the first NBA game ever in Rio, so that's going to be a big game not only for the Bulls but for the NBA. Just some minutes out there, see how it feels just to be back on the court and enjoy the experience.

The Chicago Bulls wouldn't mind seeing Rose ball out for the Brazilian fans, but their real concern starts as soon as the games actually mean something. Even through the exhaustive will-he-or-won't-he narrative that engulfed last season's second-round push, the Bulls remember exactly where they were when they lost their 24-year-old leader to a torn ACL in the opening game of the 2012 playoffs.

With a healthy-ish Rose leading the charge for the Bulls in 2011-12, Chicago racked up a league-best 50-16 mark. The previous season, when Rose played in 81 of a possible 82 games, the Bulls also paced the league with a record of 62-20.

To say that expectations are high in the Windy City is like saying that the Bulls are excited for Rose's return. Both statements are true but grossly understated.

There's good reason to think that the Bulls aren't just hoping Rose helps them get back to where they stood pre-injury, but that the organization is holding even loftier goals for next season. The floor general might recognize most of the faces around him, but he'll need some time to process how much those players have grown since his last professional outing.

No player may have lifted his ceiling higher last season than Chicago's sophomore swingman Jimmy Butler. The Marquette product demanded the attention of hoops heads for his suffocating defense, but his offensive showing in the postseason (13.3 points per game, 40.5 three-point percentage) saw him transition from a budding stopper into a full-fledged rising star.

Joakim Noah set career highs nearly across the board in Rose's absence. His mobility, court vision (4.0 assists per game) and basketball IQ make him an ideal screener for the explosive Rose.

Carlos Boozer tried his best to play the role of go-to scorer (16.2 points per game). While those days may have passed the 31-year-old by, he still flashed the ability to handle the offensive load in stretches. If defenses key on stopping Rose, he'll be glad to have Boozer as a ready recipient of his timely feeds.

Luol Deng and Taj Gibson only reinforced what we already knew about them. Deng will take whatever's thrown his way (see his league-leading 38.7 minutes per game) and channel his energy into positively impacting both ends of the floor. Gibson's a supercharged burst of energy capable of elevating his game well above the rim, deflecting shots, controlling the glass and flooding the highlight reels.

Rose will also have some new toys at his disposal when he steps back out onto the floor.

Veteran sniper Mike Dunleavy inked a two-year deal with Chicago early in the offseason. The 32-year-old has shot above 39 percent from deep in each of the last three seasons and is fresh off a career-best 42.8 percent perimeter success rate in 2012-13.

The Bulls also landed a pair of potential rotation pieces on draft night.

Tony Snell, a versatile 6'7" swingman from New Mexico, came off the board when Chicago went on the clock with the No. 20 selection. Erik Murphy, a 6'10" stretch forward out of Florida, went to the Bulls at No. 49.

The Bulls are good enough to have the luxury of developing their young talent. But if injuries or production forces either into consistent playing time, it shouldn't take long for Rose to figure out how to maximize their talents.

While Rose will appreciate the added assistance, his teammates are clearly getting the better end of the deal here.

He's in the ultra-exclusive group of players waiting to fill LeBron James' throne. He's dangerously close to playing free from any noticeable weakness, if not for a three-point stroke that mechanically passes the eye test but has never translated well to the stat sheet (career 31.0 percent).

Offensively, he has three seasons of 20-plus points per game in his first four years. Defensively, he's as good (or better) than anyone running point.

But what does bringing Rose back (along with his new and improved weapons) mean to Chicago's championship hopes?

Until someone swipes the Larry O'Brien Trophy away from the Miami Heat, the two-time defending champions are heavy favorites again. After Miami, though, it's hard to give any contender a clear edge over the Rose-led Bulls.

Maybe if the Oklahoma City Thunder hadn't been priced out of James Harden's range, there would be an argument. Maybe if there were a guarantee that Danny Granger was completely healthy, there could at least be a discussion for the Indiana Pacers. The Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks and San Antonio Spurs aren't that far removed from this list, but there are too many past-their-prime players tasked with tremendous responsibilities.

The Bulls were the best thing going in the NBA the last time Rose was healthy. They could certainly reclaim the top perch in 2013-14, but for now, they'll have to settle for the preseason silver medal.