The Miami Heat still haven't finished their championship celebration.
Sure the victory parade and (comped) nightclub bash are both distant memories, but the banner raising and ring ceremony have yet to commence.
After 16 agonizing months, Chicago will finally see the return of former MVP Derrick Rose. His presence, coupled with external additions and internal improvements, will fuel the Windy City's rise up the NBA pecking order.
So much has changed since the last time the basketball world saw Rose in regular-season action, but really so many things have stayed the same.
The thorn in Miami's side starts and stops with Chicago's sweetest flower.
Even without Rose, who missed the entire 2012-13 campaign while recovering from a torn ACL, the Bulls remained surprisingly potent last season.
Bolstered by their stifling defense (103.2 defensive rating, sixth best in the NBA), Chicago rattled off 45 regular-season wins. The Bulls played 12 games of postseason basketball, which included a grueling seven-game defeat of the Brooklyn Nets and a heroic Game 1 road upset of the eventual champion Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
But this wasn't the Chicago team fans were used to seeing.
With a healthy Rose, the Bulls won a league-best 62 games in 2010-11, then tallied a conference-leading 50 victories in the strike-shortened 2011-12 campaign.
Rose's Bulls were one of those rare teams that could win with its offense or its defense. In 2010-11, Chicago posted the NBA's best defensive rating (100.3) and finished 11th in offensive rating (108.3). The following season, Chicago moved into the top five in both those categories (98.3, second, and 107.4, fifth, respectively).
Only five other teams have managed top-five finishes in offensive and defensive ratings in the last five seasons. That group includes one NBA champion (2008-09 Los Angeles Lakers), an NBA finalist (2010-11 Heat) and two conference finalists (Orlando Magic in 2009-10, Cleveland Cavaliers in 2008-09).
With Rose back at the helm, fans can expect Chicago to return to being a top-five defense. Remember, this is largely the same group that posted that No. 6 ranking last season; only now the Bulls will have the supercharged Rose defending the point instead of the oft-injured Kirk Hinrich and the absent-minded Nate Robinson.
But the ceiling for Chicago's offense rises even higher.
Joakim Noah rewrote his offensive scouting report last season with career highs in scoring (11.9), assists (4.0) and usage rate (17.2 percent). Jimmy Butler's breakout was even more dramatic, as the sophomore shattered the marks of his rookie year (8.6 points, 57.4 true shooting percentage and 15.2 player efficiency rating, up from 2.6, 52.6 and 12.5, respectively).
Then there's the offseason arrival of sniper Mike Dunleavy. The 11-year veteran brings a career 37.2 three-point percentage to the Windy City and comes fresh off a career-best 42.8 percent showing from deep for the Milwaukee Bucks last season.
And then, of course, there's Rose. A player so freakishly gifted on offense, he's reached a near-mythical status after just four (mostly) healthy NBA seasons.
Hidden in Plain Sight
Fortunes were changed this summer.
The Houston Rockets netted the biggest free-agent fish in three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard. The Golden State Warriors looked to build on their Western Conference Semifinals run last season with the arrival of versatile wing man Andre Iguodala. The Detroit Pistons (Josh Smith, Brandon Jennings) and the New Orleans Pelicans (Tyreke Evans) made their own swings for the fences.
But the Bulls are the real offseason winners, with Chicago's native son setting a new standard for summertime additions.
Players like Rose don't enter the free-agency sweepstakes. Wildly productive and fiercely loyal, his worth is limited only by the stipulations set forth in the league's collective bargaining agreement.
He's been a superstar since he first stepped foot on the NBA hardwood back in 2008. He was the Rookie of the Year in 2008-09 and two seasons later became the youngest MVP in NBA history.
The Bulls proved last season they don't need Rose for the team to be a defensive power. Credit the shrewd teaching of Tom Thibodeau and the relentless efforts of players like Butler, Noah and Luol Deng for that.
But when facing a fellow defensive juggernaut like Miami (103.7 defensive rating last season, ninth best), Chicago has to offset the Heat's energetic defense with offensive execution.
That's where Rose's natural gifts take over. Since his arrival into the NBA, Rose has garnered the Bulls an extra 4.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor. And he doesn't simply add baskets, he improves this efficiency of the players around him:
Those numbers are meaningless without context. Here's exactly what Rose's presence means.
That 108.6 offensive rating would have ranked as the seventh-best mark in the league last season. At 104.2, Chicago would have been No. 21. That 1.5 percent drop in effective field-goal percentage would have represented a seven-spot drop from No. 15 to No. 22.
And even these numbers are skewed by the inclusion of Rose's first two seasons, when he was still learning how to be an NBA point guard.
Over the course of his four healthy seasons, he's added more than 11 points to his assist percentage (40.3, up from 28.8) and seven to his player efficiency rating (23.0, up from 16.0). He's trimmed his turnover rate (12.9, down from 13.3) while seeing a dramatic increase in his usage (30.5, up from 22.6).
If you think that will cause him to ease up on the gas pedal, well you should probably think again:
Heat Nation, it's time to take note of these Bulls. I guarantee you that Miami's players already have.
Clearing the Championship Path
Until proven otherwise, all title roads run through South Beach.
Take the best player on the planet (LeBron James), surround him with a pair of all-stars (Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) and a horde of spacers, and you have the ingredients of a championship recipe. It's worked for the Heat in each of the last two seasons but has placed a gigantic target on their back in the process.
A cluttered championship field awaits Miami in its quest to three-peat, but it's time to start unscrambling that crowd.
Some championship hopefuls still don't have enough pieces to compete (sorry Warriors, Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks fans). Others will fall victim to Father Time (Brooklyn Nets, San Antonio Spurs).
The next dominant team that Blake Griffin—or Chris Paul for that matter—plays for will be the first, so the Los Angeles Clippers are out. The Oklahoma City Thunder had their shot at Miami and may never get another chance without successfully replacing James Harden.
That leaves two teams standing in Miami's way: the Bulls and the Indiana Pacers.
Indiana dramatically improved last season's 49-win team. The Pacers bolstered their bench (Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson and Solomon Hill) and are returning their own wounded warrior (Danny Granger).
But buying Indiana's championship potential requires taking several leaps of faith.
It means believing that Paul George takes another leap in his ascension or that Roy Hibbert plays at the level he did during the 2013 postseason (17.0 points per game on 51.1 percent shooting) as opposed to how he played during the regular season (11.9 and 44.8). Or that the Pacers bench looks as good on the court as it does on paper.
I'm fine with making either of those jumps.
But I'm still not ready to buy championship stock in a team led by George Hill. There are so many mouths to be fed on this roster, and it's a stretch to call him even an adequate table-setter (career high 4.7 assists per game last season).
Chicago, on the other hand, has all of the pieces needed to spoil Miami's swarming defense.
The Heat can't deploy LeBron James on Rose for prolonged stretches. Not only would it decrease his effectiveness at the opposite end, it also brings more puzzles than Miami's defense can solve.
If James is on Rose, who does Mario Chalmers defend? Or Norris Cole, Michael Beasley or Ray Allen? Dwyane Wade can guard either Butler or Deng, but he can't stop both. The Heat can bring help, but the Bulls have more shooters to punish them with if they do.
Shifting to the interior, Miami's hopes of stopping Chicago's bruising frontcourt rests on the balky knees of Greg Oden. Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen won't stop the steady stream of baskets for Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.
The Bulls make the Heat uncomfortable. They make the game far more physical than Miami would like.
Chicago holds a 7-4 regular-season mark against Miami since the formation of the Big Three in 2010. And though the Bulls haven't yet beaten the Heat when it matters most, that time could be coming soon.
That Vegas oddsmakers aren't willing to pass to the torch, but they've pegged their top two horses in the 2014 title race, via ESPN's Marc Stein:
Clearly, the championship ball still rests in Miami's court.
But if any team is ready to snatch it away, it's the fully loaded Chicago Bulls.
*Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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