The 2011 NBA MVP sat out the 2012-13 campaign while rehabbing from the torn ACL he suffered in the team's 2012 postseason opener. Plagued by will-he-or-won't-he-return questions all season, the Bulls still found a way to rattle off 45 regular-season wins and a first-round playoff series victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
As agonizing as it was at times, Bulls fans would do it all over again if needed to ensure a clean bill of health for Rose. Championship windows may only stay open for a finite period of time—well, for every franchise not named the San Antonio Spurs—but Chicago's is sealed shut without its native son.
Rose lifts this franchise from scrappy overachievers to full-fledged title threats. No one—not the mighty Miami Heat, gritty Indiana Pacers, revamped Brooklyn Nets, explosive Oklahoma City Thunder or even the rejuvenated Spurs—can claim superiority over the Rose-led Bulls.
These championship aspirations exist in the short-term forecast.
But Rose's return impacts this franchise on a much larger scale. As long as he's willing to lace them up, Chicago will save him a roster spot.
Trading Patience for Impatience
The 2012-13 season was framed in the Windy City as a year of hope. Absent any substantial developments in Rose's rehab, fans hoped the team could tread water in his absence and set sail upon his return.
Obviously, that day never came. Expectations changed over the course of the season, and the Bulls' story traded a possible championship ending with one built around broken dreams and, ultimately, inspiration.
Less than six months later, expectations have changed once again. With Rose back at the helm—and based on his preseason production, back at full strength—the Bulls have solidified themselves as legitimate title contenders.
The thoughts behind these aspirations are simple to follow.
The Bulls surged to conference-best win totals in each of Rose's last two healthy seasons (62 in 2010-11, 50 in the strike-shortened 2011-12 campaign) and strengthened their supporting cast without him in 2012-13.
First-time All-Star Joakim Noah set career marks across the board. Jimmy Butler emerged from the end of Tom Thibodeau's bench and provided significant two-way contributions in Chicago's playoff run. Luol Deng remained a steady defensive force, despite a growing list of offensive responsibilities.
Deng told Comcast SportsNet's Aggrey Sam that Rose's absence forced the rest of the roster to grow and appreciate what the three-time All-Star adds to this team:
A lot of it has to do with growing up and also what we went through. Missing Derrick, going through a whole season. I think individually, we all had to step up and I think we all played a different role, and I think we kind of we respect the role we play now and we’re old enough where we just want to win.
Fast-forward to the offseason, where Chicago added sniper Mike Dunleavy (42.8 three-point percentage in 2012-13) to the mix. The addition of Dunleavy cannot be overstated. The Bulls were a below-average shooting team from distance last season (35.3 percent, tied for 20th) and lost two of the top four shooters from that group (Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli) in free agency.
Floor spacing is key to Chicago's offensive attack. Rose's Bulls enjoyed their most success when gunners Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson and John Lucas flanked the perimeter. Between Dunleavy, Butler (38.1) and Kirk Hinrich (39.0), Chicago should have enough long-ball threats for Rose to do damage off the dribble.
After being so patient with Rose's return, the Bulls now need to find a sense of urgency.
The championship field is thick for 2013-14, but Chicago has the bodies to play with any other contender.
With Noah, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson and Nazr Mohammed, the Bulls have the big uglies to match the Pacers' size or bully the Heat in the middle. Chicago has enough youth to run circles around the Nets and Spurs but more experience than the youthful Thunder.
Focus is key, but having a locker room full of high-character guys led by the fiery Thibodeau bodes well for Chicago in that regard. Some teams might be weary of shouldering a championship-or-bust burden, but Thibodeau said, via USA Today's Sean Highkin, that he's embraced the challenge:
To me, the pressure of expectations is really a privilege. Talking about it doesn't do any good. If you went to all 30 camps, they would all say the same thing. You evaluate yourself on whether you're putting forth a championship-caliber effort each and every day and build those habits over the course of the season.
Eyes on the Prize
Until Rose decides he's had enough, the Bulls will be graded on the toughest scale in professional sports. Anything short of a championship will be a failure, this season and beyond.
As for what that means for the players tasked with guiding this team to basketball's summit, that will become a lot clearer at season's end.
The Bulls could be headed for a dramatic face-lift next summer. Deng's working on the final year of his contract and an extension won't be forthcoming before the offseason. Boozer's a perennial amnesty candidate and an easier pill to swallow in that regard next summer when he'll have just one year left on his deal.
Chicago is already on the books for its first luxury-tax hit in franchise history for this season. Barring a hometown discount from Deng, the Bulls could be repeat offenders in 2014-15.
|Chicago's Financial Commitments for 2014-15|
This figure doesn't include team options for Butler ($2.0 million) and Marquis Teague ($1.1 million). Nor does it have the money owed to either Deng (his current salary is $14.2 million) or his replacement. Or the four other players needed to meet the minimum roster requirement of 13.
Chicago could clean up some of that mess by amnestying Boozer, but someone will be needed to fill his spot. Former first-round pick Nikola Mirotic, the reigning Spanish ACB league MVP, could be an option, but he's free from the rookie-scale contract limits and likely to command a hefty salary whenever he comes stateside.
This team has championship-caliber talent on paper but also an unnerving amount of medical red flags. Noah, Butler, Rose and Hinrich have all missed time during the preseason.
Deng told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune that the Bulls are missing valuable bonding time during these otherwise insignificant exhibitions:
Jimmy hasn't played with Jo much. Jo hasn't played much with Jimmy. Mike (Dunleavy) hasn't played much with Jo. Jimmy and Mike haven't played with each other. There are a lot of lineups we need to get acclimated.
Remember, the ramifications of a lost season could be huge for this organization. The Bulls as we know them may not exist beyond next summer.
But the expectation level won't change even if the players do.
That impacts the way this club approaches free agency and the draft. NBA-ready talent trumps project players. Chicago will be forced to place more value on proven talent than on risky, high-ceiling options.
Too many bad gambles, and the Bulls' championship window is closed. But too many conservative plays, and the cupboard for the future grows barren.
Chicago has assets coming through the pipeline. Between developing talent (Butler, Teague and rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy) and future assets (Mirotic's rights, the first-round pick still owed from the Charlotte Bobcats that loses all protection in 2016), the Bulls could be scary good over the long haul.
But first, they'll have to be dominant in the present. If there are too many holes to fill, the Bulls will need to sacrifice some of those pieces to realize their championship potential.
Worth Mortgaging the Future?
The healing powers of winning work miracles in the sports world.
Chicago's not in need to any surprises. If this roster plays up to its potential, everything becomes simpler in setting the franchise's forecast.
But the slightest stumble could leave the Bulls scouring for spare parts.
If this group doesn't have a championship in its future, then Chicago can send itself in one of two directions.
Option No. 1 involves extending this championship window by any means necessary. Not wanting to waste a transcendent talent like Rose, the Bulls fill their roster with plug-and-play veterans and remain a safe choice as an NBA elite.
Players like Deng and Boozer are either re-signed or sacrificed in the attempt to land a legitimate second star alongside Rose (perhaps someone like Kevin Love). One, or more, of those future assets is cashed in for reliability.
The Bulls maintain their perch near the top of the basketball world for now but face a lengthy rebuild when Rose's star loses its luster.
The second option involves hoping for consistency in the present but never losing sight of the future.
Butler, Teague and Mirotic are given long leashes and the full freedom to sink or swim. Boozer's given his walking papers, leaving Gibson with a guaranteed starting gig. Potential takes precedence over safety on draft night.
Guess right often enough, and the Bulls add to their championship banner collection with Rose and remain set to keep building it when he hangs up his jersey. Too many bad bets, though, and Rose becomes the latest (perhaps greatest) ring-less NBA star.
Neither option provides much comfort, so the need to win now is magnified.
Rose's past is best left in the past. His present, though, could be magnificent and the sign of even better days to come for this organization.