With former MVP Derrick Rose sidelined for the entire campaign rehabbing from a torn ACL, Chicago was a distant blip on Miami's radar. The Bulls couldn't be entirely overlooked—especially not after their upset win in Game 1 of Chicago and Miami's Eastern Conference Semifinals matchup—but the Heat had bigger fish to fry.
But that appetizer role in Miami's four-course championship meal from a season ago no longer applies to this Chicago team. Not after Rose's return, nor the roster improvements made around him.
At full strength, something Chicago hasn't been for quite some time, the Bulls have all of the necessary ingredients to spoil Miami's bid for a three-peat: size, length, toughness, defensive tenacity and offensive execution.
The Heat have potential missteps in the Eastern Conference outside of the Windy City. And while no longer as top-heavy as years past, the West boasts some terrifying depth.
Still, Rose's Bulls present a challenge to the Heat unlike any other team in the league. If Tom Thibodeau's team is finally healthy, that will put Miami's dynasty chances in serious jeopardy.
Starting From the Top
Superstars dominate NBA coverage for a reason. Transcendent talents are important in every sport, but with only five available spots on the hardwood at any given time, the benefit of filling a few of them with notable names is hard to overstate.
The star power in Miami is the standard setter in today's game. Pairing two top-10 players (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) with another top-25 producer (Chris Bosh) gives Erik Spoelstra a nearly unfair edge on a nightly basis.
Chicago can't line up star-for-star with Miami, but the gap at the top isn't as big as some would think.
Rose is one of the few players who can say he's better than James and not get laughed out of the building. He's the only player other than James with MVP hardware to show for any of the last five seasons, and the 25-year-old looks better now than he ever has before.
Most criticisms of Rose used to start with his lack of a perimeter shot. As a career 31.0 percent shooter from distance, those questions had some merit.
But then he returned after a 16-month layoff and flashed a 44.4 percent stroke in seven games this preseason. Whether that figure survives a full 82-game schedule remains to be seen, but James knows firsthand that it's possible. Miami's superstar was only a 33.1 percent shooter from beyond the arc in his first nine NBA seasons before burying 40.6 percent of his long-range chances in 2012-13.
If Rose has found comfort from downtown, then critics will have a tough time fleshing out his remaining flaws. He's a dynamic scorer (career 21.0 points per game), underrated setup man (7.9 assists against 3.1 turnovers in 2011-12), explosive athlete and stifling defender (101 defensive rating in 2011-12).
While he's Chicago's most complete star, he's far from being the only player in Thibs' rotation to earn that label.
Joakim Noah is coming off the finest season of his six-year career. The 28-year-old set career marks in points (11.9), rebounds (11.1), assists (4.0), steals (1.2) and blocks (2.1) in 2012-13. He's agile enough to chase smaller players on the perimeter and big enough (6'11", 232 pounds) to bang with bruisers under the basket.
Luol Deng isn't quite a dominant scorer (career 16.0 points per game), but he's the ideal fit for this roster. He'll do whatever Thibodeau asks of him (he led the NBA in minutes per game in each of the last two seasons) and provides a productive presence on the glass (career 6.4 rebounds per game) and at the defensive end (11.2 player efficiency allowed to opposing small forwards in 2012-13, via 82Games.com).
Carlos Boozer might be the most underappreciated 16-point, 10-rebound player I've ever seen. The 31-year-old's best days may be behind him, but take his $15.3 million salary out of the equation and he's a lethal third or fourth option.
Stars alone can't break Miami's championship hold, but they're a necessary part of dethroning the Heat.
The Forgotten Faces
James has played a pivotal role in Miami's title runs, but health and inconsistency have plagued his two most recognizable running mates.
But Miami has always found its championship strength in numbers. Whether that's Ray Allen's dagger in Game 6 during the 2013 NBA Finals or Mike Miller's seven triples in Game 5 the year before, the Heat's role players have delivered at the most crucial times.
With today's focus on superteams, too often fans forget to realize how important the rest of the roster really is. There's a reason that the Brooklyn Nets followed their blockbuster trade for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry with a sneaky good signing of Andrei Kirilenko; it was the same one fueling the Indiana Pacers' offseason overhaul of their reserve unit.
The Bulls' summer upgrades weren't as dramatic (signing Mike Dunleavy, re-signing Nazr Mohammed and drafting Tony Snell and Erik Murphy), but there weren't as many holes to fill.
When Thibs needs a spark, he'll look first to the prominent pieces returning to his rotation.
Third-year forward Jimmy Butler caused quite the stir down the stretch of his sophomore season. The Marquette product averaged 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds in 20 regular-season starts, then maintained most of that production (13.3 and 5.2, respectively) in his first true taste of postseason basketball.
Taj Gibson leads the second team, ensuring first that Chicago's toughness and defensive tenacity extends to the reserves. An intimidating rim protector (career 1.3 blocks per game) and gluttonous glass eater (career 9.4 boards per 36 minutes), he's also an important offensive piece thanks to a smooth mid-range stroke and his ability to finish plays above the rim.
Kirk Hinrich gives Chicago perimeter shooting (39.0 three-point percentage last season) and another savvy decision-maker (career 5.4 assists against 2.0 turnovers). He's always an injury concern and has already missed time this preseason due to a concussion, but his high basketball IQ is an asset whenever his body allows him to put it to use. Sophomore guard Marquis Teague is a nice insurance piece behind Hinrich.
Dunleavy (42.8 three-point percentage in 2012-13), Hinrich and Butler (38.1) will be helping to offset the perimeter losses of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli over the summer. If this trio finds its mark, then Rose will be free to attack the Heat right at their most vulnerable point: under the basket.
Does Chicago Have Enough?
In order to go from being a mediocre team to a good one, NBA clubs have to find a niche. Whether that's as an explosive offense or suffocating defense, they have to play up to their strengths.
The truly elite teams, though, can thrive in any situation. They can grind out victories in grueling, low-scoring affairs. They can sprint to victory in an NBA track meet.
Great teams can beat opponents at their own games; they don't need to will their style on the opposition, they simply outperform that club at their preferred method of play.
Chicago's defensive strengths aren't limited to Rose's presence. This team posted a top-five defensive rating without him last season (103.2).
But the Bulls' offensive ceiling is capped without Rose. After compiling the sixth-best offensive rating with him in 2011-12 (107.4), the Bulls plummeted to 23rd in 2012-13 (103.5).
Who do you see as Miami's biggest threat in 2013-14?
Here's where Chicago separates itself from the rest of the title hopefuls.
The Pacers can bother the Heat's offense, but how will their own offense handle Miami's swarming defense? The Nets and New York Knicks can race the Heat to 120 points, but how will they react when Miami slows the tempo and increases its defensive intensity?
Moving out West, the cause for concern only grows. Is this the season age finally catches up to the San Antonio Spurs? Conversely, will the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors need a year of collective experience before crashing the championship stage?
How badly will Russell Westbrook's absence hurt the Oklahoma City Thunder out of the gate, and has this team done enough to keep its championship window open? Is Doc Rivers' presence enough to mask the Los Angeles Clippers interior problems?
For the Bulls, it's simply a matter of keeping everyone out on the floor. The injury bug has already started biting, and Noah's nagging groin injury put a dark cloud over an otherwise incredibly bright preseason—although ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell reports that the All-Star center is ready for opening night.
The Bulls have star power and depth, offensive firepower and defensive toughness.
They have everything it takes to dethrone the champs, but we'll see if that's actually enough to do the job.