Could the Chicago Bulls have won a championship in the past couple years if they were fully healthy?
This is a question that nags loyal Bulls fans because their health woes prevented them from competing at full strength in the past two playoff campaigns. Their health struggles dashed any title dreams.
Will this continue to be their biggest obstacle to winning an NBA title? The answer to that is unquestionably yes.
Flashback: In 2010-11, the last season in which the Bulls' core was healthy throughout the playoffs, they won a league-best 62 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals.
They were then ousted in five games by the star-studded Miami Heat, but anybody who watched that series knows it was much tighter than five games. Numerous contests in that series could've fallen in Chicago's favor if a few bounces had gone their way. It was undoubtedly much different than their five-game defeat against Miami this past season, in which the Heat dominated Games 2-5.
What the Bulls accomplished in 2011 put them on the map of legitimate contenders. Presumably, they would return to the Eastern Conference Finals the next season with another shot at Miami.
Then, Derrick Rose's torn ACL derailed these hopes for both 2011-12 and 2012-13. Rather than potentially reaching the NBA pinnacle, they instead had to watch the Heat compile consecutive championships.
Furthermore, they had to endure seeing the Heat barely survive two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals.
In 2012, the Celtics (who had just a .591 winning percentage during the 2011-12 regular season) nearly took down LeBron James and company. Just a couple months ago, the Pacers (who didn't even win 50 regular season games in 2012-13) almost dethroned the reigning champs.
The Heat escaped both series by winning a Game 7 on their home floor.
Why does this matter?
Because the Bulls were arguably better than both the 2011-12 Celtics and 2012-13 Pacers. Chicago led the league in winning percentage in both 2010-11 and 2011-12, and they would've been near the top again in 2012-13 if Rose had been active.
2010-11: Regular Season Win Leaders
2011-12: Regular Season Win Leaders (Lockout-shortened Year)
This amplifies that the only hurdle that has stood in the Bulls' way from hanging a championship banner has been health.
If Boston and Indiana, two respectable teams but not as efficient as a healthy Chicago, took Miami to seven games, then it's surely reasonable to wonder if the Bulls, with health, could've beaten Miami in the past couple playoffs. They at least would've been right there, just like the Celtics and Pacers.
This analysis brings to the fore that Chicago's biggest impediment to garnering the Larry O'Brien trophy has been and will continue to be health. They have the pieces in place, especially with Jimmy Butler emerging as a suffocating defender and a more than serviceable offensive threat.
Another layer to this, however, extends outside Rose's status. It's not just his presence that is imperative. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Kirk Hinrich have had their own injury concerns during their careers.
If these individuals, particularly Noah or Deng, suffer a substantial blow, then the Bulls' chances of contending are once again in serious jeopardy. They need more than just a healthy D-Rose. They need all of their core players performing at 100 percent.
If this is the case, then the Bulls are a legitimate pick to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals, even with a now loaded Brooklyn Nets squad and a steadily improving Pacers club (they recently added veteran big man Luis Scola).
While these opponents and the Heat would certainly give a healthy Bulls team some troubles, Chicago has the ingredients and defensive tenacity to rise to the top. They are as good as anybody defensively, and D-Rose cures many of their offensive limitations.
Further, Butler's offensive improvement and the addition of sharpshooter Mike Dunleavy should help as well. They could realistically win 60-65 games and steamroll their way into May and June.
But, until we actually see their nucleus on the floor together in the playoffs, questions about the Bulls' potential will loom.
With their growing track record of injuries coupled with coach Tom Thibodeau's tendency to ride his starters heavy minutes, it's hard to know if this team will ever have all of its components assembled late in the year.
If they do, though, don't be surprised at what they can attain. Nothing is outside of their reach. Perhaps it shouldn't just be said that their biggest obstacle is health, but rather that this is their only obstacle.