For the better part of the past two years, the Chicago Bulls have been a team believed to be one piece away from genuine contention—a mantra made all the more immediate by the team’s pursuit of free-agent gems Carmelo Anthony and Pau Gasol.
The Bulls could well be one superstar short. It might just be the one they’ve had all along.
We’re talking, of course, about Derrick Rose, who'd emerged as one of the league’s most transcendent young stars before a pair of devastating knee injuries—separated by just 18 months of rehab and an all-too-brief basketball resurrection—put that once surefire future in doubt.
Just how close is Rose to returning? While no definitive dates have been set, a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson, prompted by rumors that the onetime MVP was gearing up for Team USA’s minicamp later in July, certainly helped assuage the cynics:
If I'm feeling right and the time is [right], for sure I will go out there. My body is responding good, but you never know. Right now, I haven't really thought about that. I am just worrying about just trying to get back every day, and I'm really taking rehab one day at a time instead of trying to think about competing.
Rose’s confidence was even more apparent in remarks given to Yahoo Sports’ Marc J. Spears earlier that same day:
I think I was ready a long time ago. Right now is about just getting all the wrinkles out. I've been playing for a long time, even though nobody has (seen it). I want to just step on the court, and I want people to see that I'm the same.
If it is in fact "the same" Derrick Rose ripe for return—the impossibly athletic and gloriously gifted floor general who helped transform the basketball fortunes of his native city—it’s hard to imagine Chicago entering the 2014-15 season as anything but a legitimate Eastern Conference contender.
Over nearly two full years without Rose, the Bulls battered and bludgeoned their way into the postseason thanks to one of the league’s stoutest defenses (anchored by All-Star center Joakim Noah), a patchwork of perimeter stopgaps and the top-tier tactical acumen of head coach Tom Thibodeau.
Unfortunately, without Rose to bail them out, the Bulls offense has devolved into a stagnant mess, resulting in a bottom-seven finish in overall efficiency in each of the last two seasons.
The prescriptive calculus was simple: Either land a top-notch scoring threat in free agency to hedge against worst-case scenarios, or hope that Rose’s return—combined with a bit of draft-day help—would be enough to put the Bulls back above the Eastern Conference fold.
At this point, it’s looking like Chicago's after the latter.
With Anthony purportedly torn between the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, per ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne and Chris Broussard, and Pau Gasol inundated with offers from contenders, via Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald, Chi-Town's hopes hinge on making changes at the fringes.
Whether that plan still includes amnestying Carlos Boozer—a ploy the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley reported on July 3 was all but a "done deal"—remains to be seen. The Bulls have yet to officially pull the trigger on wiping away Boozer’s $16 million from next year’s salary cap, lending a bit of credence to the idea that the move was designed to goad the Knicks into a sign-and-trade involving Anthony.
But as Bleacher Report’s own Dan Favale recently pointed out, missing out on 'Melo might force the Bulls to pull back on their cap-cleaving gambit:
If Anthony doesn't join the Bulls, expect a series of modest, marginally needle-pushing moves to follow. And don't count on them amnestying Carlos Boozer. They won't pay him $16.8 million to go away if it doesn't mean landing a superstar.
Such is the Bulls way. They are uncharacteristically putting themselves on the line for one player, for one relatively safe investment, who stands to yield predictable gains. If their Anthony pursuit doesn't pan out, the Bulls aren't screwed.
Should they decide to follow through on jettisoning their veteran power forward, however, the Bulls would have some $12 million in cap space (after factoring in rookie salaries). That's more than enough to make a serious run at a handful of free-agent mercenaries.
But with that crop dwindling by the day, time is of the essence for Chicago.
Much will depend on how much the Bulls end up paying pick-and-stash prospect Nikola Mirotic, the versatile forward and star of the Spanish ACB League whom the Bulls nabbed with the 23rd overall pick in the 2011 draft.
Ditto Doug McDermott, the Bulls’ most recent draft-day get and an instant-offense option with perimeter range for days.
Still, neither Mirotic nor McDermott is anything close to the kind of sure thing Chicago needs, even if it’s just reasonably to round out the roster.
Which is why Rose remains by far the biggest X-factor in this whole, fluctuating equation: If he’s able to come back at even 80 percent of his once incendiary self, the team’s playoff ceiling will undoubtedly be higher.
McDermott, Mirotic, Jimmy Butler, Tony Snell: Productive leaps from any two of Chicago’s young quartet—particularly on offense—would make any of Rose's inevitable rust eminently more manageable.
Regaining its status as a legitimate championship contender will require more than a few things to break in Chicago’s favor. That the universe has lately been so cruel in that regard—insult to injury at far too many turns—means they're due.