On Tuesday, Oct. 29, the Chicago Bulls will open the 2013-14 NBA regular season against the Miami Heat at the AmericanAirlines Arena. As one of the league's most ferocious rivalries is rekindled, the true focus of every fan and analyst will be on the return of 2011 MVP Derrick Rose.
Once the smoke has cleared and the dust has settled, Rose will make the Bulls legitimate championship contenders.
Rose missed the entire 2012-13 regular season while recovering from the torn ACL injury that he suffered during the 2012 NBA playoffs. More than a calendar year later, Rose will return to the court and look to pick up where he left off on his path to legendary status.
According to Adam Figman of SLAM Online, Rose has put on more than 10 pounds of muscle and believes that he'll be a more effective player in 2013-14.
“Right now I’m in training, and I’m getting a lot stronger. I gained 10 pounds of muscle. I don’t know how that’s going to carry over to how I play on the court, but I know it’s going to be very weird. I’m shooting a lot of shots right now, working with Rob, just putting memory back in my leg.”
“With me, I was always kind of strong, but the way that I play, I hit tricky lay-ups and all of that stuff because going to the hole in my neighborhood, they don’t call any fouls, so I was just used to hitting all types of shots. Now this year, I got a little more strength behind me, so I think going to the hole, taking those shots, I’ll be able to finish a lot stronger this year. There should be a lot more and-ones, hopefully.”
Rose goes on to state that he's also dramatically improved his jump shooting.
The truth of the matter is, what Rose has done to improve his skill set isn't what will elevate the Bulls to the next level. Instead, it's what Chicago already has in place, as well as what Rose's return does to fill the remaining holes on the roster.
Once this perfect storm comes together, expect Chicago to return to title contention.
Life Without Rose
During the 2012-13 NBA regular season, the Bulls finished with a record of 45-37 and ended the season at No. 5 in the Eastern Conference. The Bulls' offense was underwhelming, but defensively, Chicago ranked third in scoring defense.
When it was all said and done, the Bulls lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals after upsetting the Brooklyn Nets in the first round and taking one game from the Miami Heat. They did all of that without Rose and most of the work without Luol Deng or Kirk Hinrich.
"A champion's resiliency" is the phrase you're searching for.
Despite playing without any form of reliability at point guard or along the second unit, Chicago was one of the best teams in the East. Despite performing poorly at home—a statistical anomaly with or without Rose—the Bulls managed to be one of the best defensive teams in the league.
When a team is that good without its superstar, it's scary to imagine what will happen once that player returns.
Whether Rose is active or absent, the Bulls are one of the NBA's truly elite defensive units. Chicago was third in scoring defense, ninth in opponent field-goal percentage and fifth in opponent three-point field goal percentage during the 2012-13 season.
Bringing back an explosive athlete who knows how to play the passing lanes should help Chicago improve upon its only true defensive weakness: a ranking of 22nd in turnovers forced per game.
A healthy Bulls team without Rose—both Deng and Hinrich missed significant postseason games—are essentially the East's Memphis Grizzlies. They have the personnel to go deep—Joakim Noah is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Luol Deng is an All-Star and Carlos Boozer ranked fifth with 44 double-doubles—and the defensive prowess to compete with any team in the NBA.
Now, the Bulls will surround those three players with something they lacked in 2012-13: depth.
Improved Second Unit
During the 2012-13 NBA regular season, the Bulls' second unit was ravaged by injuries. Not only was Rose injured, but Richard Hamilton, Hinrich and Deng all faced ailments of some sort, thus forcing reserves into starting roles and running the bench thin.
In 2013-14, that shouldn't be as much of an issue.
The projected starting lineup for Chicago consists of Rose, Jimmy Butler, Deng, Boozer and Noah. That lineup alone is good enough to lead the Bulls to title contention, but its the new-found depth—whether via the offseason or in-house development—that pushes Chicago over the top.
It all starts at point guard.
In 2012-13, the Bulls trusted Hinrich and Nate Robinson to run point, with Marquis Teague receiving limited opportunities to help. As Hinrich missed more than 20 games due to injury, Robinson began topping 35-to-40 minutes.
In 2013-14, Hinrich will be Rose's backup and Teague is no longer a rookie, suggesting the trust will be present via head coach Tom Thibodeau. Thus, there is depth.
If that's not enough, Chicago's previously-thin perimeter now has Mike Dunleavy, Tony Snell and Malcolm Thomas at the guard and forward spots. Dunleavy and Snell are both sharpshooters, which should help in improving Chicago's ranking of 29th in three-point field goals made per game.
Throw in stretch-4 Erik Murphy and Chicago's offense is as dangerous as it's ever been in the Thibodeau era.
Down low, Boozer and Noah are again backed up by Taj Gibson and Nazr Mohammed, which presents a major question mark. If Gibson is unable to produce upwards of 20 minutes per game, Chicago could run into trouble with fatigue.
Fortunately, the Bulls now have something they lacked in 2012-13: a closer.
Clutch, Clutch, Clutch
In 2010-11, Rose's NBA MVP award-winning season, he ranked third in the NBA with 59 field goals during clutch situations, per Basketball-Reference.com. In 2012-13, Boozer and Deng tied for the team-lead with 26 apiece in those very situations, per Basketball-Reference.com.
For those who haven't done the math, Rose converted more clutch field goals in 2010-11 than Chicago's two leaders managed combined during the 2012-13 season.
Rose has battled injuries over the past two seasons, failing to play a single game in 2012-13, and will thus need to redevelop that comfort in the clutch. As we've seen with countless aging and injury-prone players, however, the clutch-gene is not easily lost.
As a result of that truth, for the first time in over a calendar year, the Bulls know who to turn to when the game is on the line.
With the Bulls serving as a team that values defense above all else, having a late-game presence is beyond critical. Rose will not only take on the role of a clutch scorer, but he'll serve as the last-minute facilitator in said situations, as well.
Never underestimate the value of a player who can collapse a defense off of the bounce.
Chicago was already a high-quality team without Rose, and his return should do nothing but push it to the next level. With an elite defense, a dramatically improved second unit and one of the most widely-respected head coaches in the world, Chicago is in line for a special season.
Don't forget, Chicago did finish the 2010-11 and 2011-12 regular seasons with the best record in the NBA. We shouldn't be too shocked to see the Bulls in the running for that honor in 2013-14.