Derrick Rose's return might have been delayed, but it's been worth the wait.
It's a wait that's lasted longer than the injury—or even Rose's career.
From the fan's perspective, this has been 15 years in the making.
That's when I moved to Chicago. I recall sitting on the plane that fateful day in June, circling O'Hare Airport and considering what a wonderful thing it was that I was going to finally be in the city where the greatest basketball on earth was played.
It seems my whole life as a fan had been with one bad team after another. I was in Minnesota when the Timberwolves were bad, San Antonio when the Spurs were bad and Washington D.C. when the Bullets were bad.
I was finally going to get the chance to see a great team play.
Then, after disembarking from the plane, as I walked through the airport, I realized I was the only one not watching a TV. Flocks of people surrounded every bar and lobby television, and the airport was silent other than the voice of Phil Jackson, who was announcing his retirement.
After that, for a decade it was one unmitigated disaster after another. Only one team that existed when Jordan had last played won fewer games over the next 10 years. The Bulls were losers.
Whatever happened, though, the Chicago faithful would not give up on them. Year after year, the United Center was one of the most sold-out stadiums in the league.
I remember a game I attended in 2002 against the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Bulls were near the bottom of the league in the standings, and the Lakers were near the top. Yet, the stadium was as red as if they were competing for first. Even the ever-popular Lakers franchise couldn't take over the Bulls' home when no one should have been caring what happened with the Bulls.
Kobe Bryant missed a shot that would have won the game for the Lakers at the end of regulation. The fans went crazy, and the game went into overtime. Bryant missed another shot that would have won the game in OT. The fans went crazier. The Bulls won, and the fans went craziest.
Their leading scorer that season was Marcus Fizer. Marcus Fizer! And the fans still showed up in support.
There was the persistent and fruitless big-man search. Some of the players they drafted panned out; some didn't. Tyson Chandler turned out to be a Defensive Player of the Year, but they didn't have the patience to let him develop. The grass was always greener on the other side of the trade.
Then there was the Jason (Jay) Williams disaster. His promising young career was destroyed in a motorcycle accident in 2003.
In 2005, the Bulls, coached by Scott Skiles, showed signs of finally turning the corner. The team went 47-35, before getting bounced by the Washington Wizards in the first round of the playoffs.
But that experiment with the "Baby Bulls" didn't last long, as Skiles wore out his welcome with his suffocating coaching style, and he was out the door in 2008. He got replaced by Jim Boylan, who was, in turn, replaced by Vinny Del Negro.
Del Negro may or may not have known what shape the basketball is, and that was about the extent of his grasp of the game. After a heated argument with John Paxson over the use of Joakim Noah, Del Negro was gone, thankfully.
At the same time Del Negro had arrived, though, the Bulls averted another disaster.
There was a big debate in 2008 over whether the Bulls should take hometown star Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley with the top overall pick. Fortunately, the Bulls made the right choice and took Rose.
(In a statistic that will never stop being funny, Derrick Rose still "outperformed" Michael Beasley in Win Shares last year, as he had none, and Beasley had negative-1.5.)
Then, in the summer of 2010, the Bulls made a move that would change their future when they signed Tom Thibodeau as their new head coach. Thibodeau brought two things to the Bulls: the best understanding of defense in the NBA and a reputation as a player developer.
The Bulls had gutted the team—apart from their young core—in order to land LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade, and that didn't work out well. What they were able to do, though, is rebuild around Rose, giving Thibodeau a roster that he could work with.
The Bulls added Carlos Boozer, Kyle Korver and a group of complementary players. They unleashed a defense that was as good as any in the league, and as the season progressed, it became increasingly evident this was the best Bulls team since the Jordan days.
Chicago, for the first time since then, won more games than any team in the NBA. Hope had come back to the Windy City.
Even though the Bulls lost to the Miami Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, there was a belief that they could win in the inevitable 2012 rematch.
The problem was that the entire season was just one long series of setbacks and overcome obstacles. Rose played sparsely the second half of the season.
(It got so bad that I started a season on NBA2K just so I could "see" Rose play. He got injured in the first game in that season too.)
The Bulls overcame all those setbacks, and in a game where Rose was shredding the Philadelphia 76ers with both his scoring and passing, he went down for the next year-plus.
Bulls fans haven't just been waiting since then for next season for Rose to return to the Bulls.
We've been waiting since the day Phil Jackson retired for the Bulls to return to the NBA Finals.
The fire of adversity removes the dross and purifies the metal, and no team has faced the flames this team has.
Rose has always been the "gem," the franchise player a team needs to win the title, but the "band," the team in which the stone is set, was not yet ready.
The last two years, the Bulls have been purified and shaped. They're ready now.
Joakim Noah has improved on both ends of the ball, but more importantly, they've found a player whose heart is big enough to pump blood through the veins of eight million Chicagoans.
Luol Deng, the epitome of courage, imbued the team with determination by just trying to play before he had to succumb to the ailment that nearly took his life.
Jimmy Butler lived up to his name, tirelessly serving in the second half of the season and, in particular, during the postseason, where he played all but 19 minutes of the Bulls' last seven games. And like any good butler, he aptly filled in the superhero role during Batman's absence.
He won't put up Dark Night numbers next year, nor does he need to. If he can average 13-15 points, six rebounds and three assists a game—all while playing at an All-Defense level—he'd easily be the best starting shooting guard in the Thibodeau era.
Carlos Boozer, who gets no credit for doing so (of course), absorbs ridiculous amounts of criticism without complaint. It's as though his mere presence on the team protects virtually every other player from getting dumped on.
The Bulls have rebuilt their bench over the last two seasons.
Taj Gibson, whose fortitude and work ethic make him the perfect bench player, leads them defensively. Kirk Hinrich will ably spell Rose. Marquis Teague showed real progress in the Las Vegas Summer League and should help as well.
Nazr Mohammed displayed superhuman strength, flinging LeBron James halfway across the court with a mere flick of his wrist. Let's see Omer Asik do that! (Yes, I am being facetious.)
This is a team whose core, even without Rose, won a playoff series, on the road, against a team that was viewed as more talented last season, the Brooklyn Nets.
It even stole a game from the NBA champions, the Miami Heat, on the road, in spite of playing with what was essentially its second string.
The postseason was nothing less than a 12-man personification of character.
This year, the Bulls core is ready to win a title. It has been forged, not built, to do so.
And this summer, it added the polish too.
Mike Dunleavy, who is by far the most complete player of the plethora of one-way wings the Bulls have run through in recent years, should mercifully cut into Deng's playing time.
Rookie Tony Snell adds another long-limbed defender who is one of the best pure shooters in this year's draft. Erik Murphy, their other rookie, is a stretch 4 but probably won't see much of the court.
It seems that Dexter Pittman, per Sportando, and Mike James, per Marc Stein of ESPN.com, will be joining the Bulls in training camp. Both could make the team. The Bulls must add at least one more roster spot. Both could be added, though.
For once, owner Jerry Reinsdorf doesn't seem averse to spending money. After the Bulls fill out their roster with a 13th player, they'll have the second-highest payroll in the NBA this year.
There seems to be a near-palpable expectation about this team. Even Reinsdorf, by spending the money, seems to think so.
The point of all this is that Rose is the gem. He's the highlight reel.
I can't dunk a donut with the skill he can dunk a basketball. He's so fast that if you watch him in slow motion, it looks like he's playing at normal speed. He's that good.
Will the Bulls win the 2014 NBA championship?
The thrill and joy of watching Rose play is certainly a part of the reason his return is so anticipated. But the reason it was worth the wait is that the team is so much better. The team has used the interim to be better prepared.
Rose may still take over and dominate during the clutch, but he'll have a team better equipped to help him. He won't have to manufacture every clutch point exclusively.
This is a team that knows it can beat Miami, in the playoffs, even if the Heat stop Rose.
It knows it can beat Miami without Rose playing well, because it has beaten Miami, in the postseason, without Rose playing at all.
There's more mettle to its metal.
There is a Latin expression, "Alea iacta est," meaning, "the die is cast." It is reportedly what Julius Caesar said at the outset of his war with Pompey. It means that the future is set.
It works well for what the Bulls have done. In the metallurgical sense, the die has been cast. The metal has been forged and shaped, and the band is ready for the stone to be set. In the Caesarean sense, it works too. Their future has been shaped by their recent history.
This season, they'll open against Miami, watching them hoist its banners. The Bulls will end it winning their seventh. The die has been cast.