LeBron James and the Miami Heat have been in the banner-hanging business for the past two seasons, and business has been good. But Derrick Rose, healthy and more driven than ever, is primed to lead his Chicago Bulls in a hostile takeover.
We'll get to Rose's individual impact on the suddenly much tighter race in the East momentarily. First, it's important to acknowledge that while the Bulls will need their superstar to push them over the top, they've also taken steps over the past year that will make Rose's job easier.
While You Were Out
The Bulls grew in Rose's absence, largely because they had no other choice.
Head coach Tom Thibodeau's favorite mantra in the face of questions about his team's injury concerns has always been "we have enough." Even when that refrain was obviously untrue, as it was last year, the Bulls adopted it wholeheartedly.
The team's total faith in their coach's next-man-up philosophy led to a surprising amount of organic growth throughout the roster. Instead of feeling sorry for themselves, a couple of Bulls buckled down and got better.
Most notably, Joakim Noah became a legitimate facilitator on offense.
The energetic big man, best known for his defensive tenacity, was suddenly an offensive focal point, a role in which he excelled. According to NBA.com, Noah's assist and usage rate both reached career highs last season as he ably orchestrated offensive possessions from the elbows.
Chicago's offense wasn't efficient in 2012-13, but that was an expected consequence of Rose's injury. And while it might sound like damning with faint praise, Noah's emergence as a playmaker was the only thing standing between the Bulls and a dead-last ranking in offensive efficiency.
Jimmy Butler also took a huge leap forward, proving that he was much more than an end-of-the-bench athlete with some defensive potential. According to 82games.com, Butler held opposing shooting guards to a PER of seven, an almost comically low rate of production. Small forwards posted a PER of 12.7, still well below league average.
As a one-on-one stopper, Butler is now elite. And as a team defender, he's just as good.
But he also led the Bulls by a wide margin with a true shooting percentage of 57 percent, which, according to ESPN (subscription required) rated ahead of Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, to name just a few.
Without Rose as the Bulls' offensive crutch, Butler developed much faster than he otherwise would have. Now, Chicago has a real two-way threat (who still has loads of potential, by the way) to play alongside their former MVP in a devastatingly athletic backcourt.
Rose isn't just returning to a team with improvements at center and shooting guard, though. He'll also rejoin a Bulls club that added Mike Dunleavy to be a poor man's Kyle Korver, the shooter Chicago lacked last year.
Kirk Hinrich's steady hand will assume the backup point guard duties that the occasionally excellent, but often erratic, Nate Robinson handled a year ago.
Plus, according to CSN Chicago's Aggrey Sam, extension talks for Luol Deng have hit a snag, which means the gritty small forward could be playing with some extra motivation in a contract year. It's hard to imagine Deng giving any more effort than he already does, but it's amazing what the prospect of unrestricted free agency can do to a player's internal drive.
Speaking of drive, there's a certain former MVP who'll be returning to the lineup with more to prove than ever. Maybe it's time we discussed his impact.
The D-Rose Effect
No player has a bigger impact on his team's offense than Rose has for the Bulls. In 2010-11, Rose's MVP campaign, Chicago ranked 12th in offensive efficiency. In 2011-12, it climbed all the way up to fifth. But last year, with Rose sidelined, Chicago plummeted to 24th in the league, per NBA.com.
With Rose back in the fold, the Bulls will again have a solution when the shot clock winds down or the offense stalls. On its own, his ability to create opportunities out of nothing will help propel Chicago's offensive production up the ladder.
In addition, he'll command the full attention of every opposing defense. Coaches tend to focus their efforts on stopping guys who've won MVP awards, and even if Rose isn't quite fully recovered, he'll still represent the Bulls' most dangerous offensive option by a wide margin.
His ability to penetrate creates chances for shooters on the perimeter and draws help defense away from big men in the lane. Absolutely everything the Bulls want to do on offense becomes markedly easier with Rose on the floor.
But none of that information is new. Everybody knows Rose transforms Chicago from an all-defense outfit into a complete team.
What people seem to neglect, though, is that this Bulls team made a surprising amount of noise last year without its star. On grit and determination alone, Chicago knocked off the Brooklyn Nets in the first round and did its best to put up a fight against the Heat.
This team somehow soldiered its way into the second round with an army of the walking wounded.
Now pretend that they just signed a free agent. Imagine that said free agent is actually a recent MVP in what should the prime of his career. Also pretend that this free agent has done nothing but work himself to death over the past year because he has a ton to prove. He's motivated beyond belief. That's what the Bulls are getting with Rose.
What About the Heat?
Glad you asked.
Rose's return only matters in the grand scheme of NBA title pursuits if it constitutes enough of an improvement to make the Bulls a worthy challenger to the Heat. Considering what we know about both rosters—and how they'll approach the 2013-14 season—it sure looks like his comeback is going make Chicago into a real threat.
In head-to-head situations, the Heat know that the only safe way to wrangle Rose is to stick LeBron James on him full time. Of course, they also know that such a strategy presents an immense risk because the team depends so heavily on James to run the show on the other end. If he has to chase Rose around all game, even the mighty James might (gasp!) get a little winded.
That leaves Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole to cover Rose for most of the game, and while both are able defenders, neither is up to the challenge of handling a fully recovered D-Rose.
You argumentative types are probably already screaming about the way the Heat handily dispatched the Bulls in the 2010-11 Eastern Conference Finals. James put the period on that series by guarding Rose himself, swatting away the MVP's last-second attempt in the deciding game.
But this Bulls team is different. As we've discussed, it has grown over the past year. Now, shutting down Rose (if that's even a real possibility) doesn't mean the Bulls will fall apart. There are more options now with Butler, Noah and a theoretically healthy Deng and Carlos Boozer.
And while we're on the topic of options, nobody has more of them to throw at James than the Bulls. Butler and Deng can bother him on the perimeter, and even Taj Gibson has shown the ability to stick with him for short stretches. James will get his numbers, but that trio of defenders will absolutely make him work for them.
More important than anything we've discussed so far, though, is the fact that Rose's return might mean the Bulls don't even have to face the Heat. That might sound improbable, but consider the following:
One thing we know about Rose-led Bulls teams is that they pile up regular season wins like crazy. They tied for the league lead and secured the No. 1 seed in the East in 2011-12, and before that led the NBA with 62 wins in 2010-11.
The Heat essentially had their current roster in each of those years, yet the Bulls finished ahead of them in the standings. This season, there's a good chance that Miami coasts through the regular season in an effort to preserve its core for another title run. Because Rose's return assures the Bulls of a top-three seed in the East, and because the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets are both markedly improved, the Heat could very well wind up with a seed as low as fourth.
That means Miami's playoff road could be much rougher this time around. Who knows? The Heat could even suffer an injury or two that could result in a surprising early-round elimination.
Admittedly, the Heat potentially getting bounced by another team is an indirect effect of Rose's return, but it could end up mattering in a big way.
Even though the Bulls won more games than any other NBA team during Rose's two most recent seasons, we still don't actually know how good they can be.
According to Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel, Boozer said this after the Heat eliminated the Bulls in May: "The thing about our team, for the three years we have been together, we have not been healthy in a playoff run yet. If we are next year, it will be scary."
There's a big "if" in that statement, but Boozer is right. The Bulls will be scary with a fully healthy roster.
Whether they're scary enough to pose a real threat to the Heat is up for debate, but a couple of things are inarguable: Rose has never had a better supporting cast and, individually, he has never had more motivation to prove himself.
When Thibodeau says the Bulls "have enough" this season, he might still be lying. Only this time, it'll be because his team actually has more than enough to get the job done.