Unbridled optimism must be met with veritable realism. This is to say, caution and skepticism.
Elite though the Bulls are on paper and in theory, their success within the tumultuous Eastern Conference floats on tides of uncertainty from which there is no respite. Until they prove able to tread these deep waters, perhaps swimming out of them once and for all, the unease of the unknown remains very real.
That is what the Bulls are facing: the unknown. All the forecasts in the world—fair-weather or stormy—won't change this. They're a resilient basketball team, hoping to be on the brink of conference supremacy, tasked with ensuring they don't drown beneath waves of expectations.
Part of the Bulls' intrigue stems from their performance without Rose.
They mustered 45 wins and a second-round playoff berth without him in 2012-13, and they notched 48 victories and a top-four conference finish despite him missing 72 games in 2013-14. His return adds superstar talent to a team already good enough. Ergo, the Bulls are to be feared by all.
But Rose's return isn't that simple. It can't be.
Good vibes emanating out of Team USA's FIBA World Cup roster tryouts are encouraging and elating. They're also meaningless.
Rose has not returned. Not really. The FIBA World Cup is not the NBA. Team USA is not the Bulls. Summer exhibition is not the grueling, 82-game regular season.
What Rose is doing now has little to no bearing on his future in Chicago as it pertains to his production and durability—that is, unless his well-being is threatened. Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com (via ESPN.com's Marc Stein and Mike Mazzeo) brings word that Rose's health is a concern once again:
A source familiar with Rose's condition told ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell that Rose has been bothered by knee soreness since his return to the floor Saturday night in an exhibition victory over Brazil in Chicago and requested the extra time to recover. But Team USA officials, to this point, have downplayed concerns about Rose's status.
The fact that Rose missed a second consecutive workout is bound to worry some Bulls fans back in Chicago, given the star guard's knee problems over the past two seasons, but Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski actually revealed in a radio interview Monday with ESPN's "Mike and Mike" that he was planning to hold Rose out of practice for the first two days of the week.
Ominous pictures need not be painted. Rose's future is not in jeopardy thanks to this latest setback that, in all reality, isn't even a setback.
"You cannot push all the way back from knee surgery without having pain," NBC Sports' Kurt Helin writes. "Does not happen. It’s not even supposed to happen."
True? Yes. Calming? Eh.
If twinges of pain are to be interpreted as nothing, then Rose's performances are to be treated similarly. The Bulls will not glean insight into their future by watching Rose dominate—or struggle—on stages that aren't relevant to the NBA's regular season.
More to the point, ability has never been Rose's issue. Availability is his downfall. He has appeared in 50 games—regular season and playoffs—since 2010-11.
Silencing doubters will take more than a few pregame dunks and for-old-time's-sake athletic displays. The Bulls need Rose to do what he hasn't done—by fluke or flaw—and remain healthy for an entire season, all while adapting his game to meet his body-invoked situation.
Last year's return came with rumblings of a more complete player promising a better jumper. Will that be true this time around? Rose has never been much of a shooter, last season or otherwise. He shot 24.4 percent between eight and 24 feet in 2013-14, and 39.7 percent from the same range in 2011-12. He's never converted more than 34 percent of his three-point attempts, either.
Increased range is important for a player who so often relied on athleticism and fearlessness rather than savvy prior to 2011-12. A complete Rose will seem more comfortable outside 8 feet, feeling more at home on the perimeter, beyond the arc.
"I'm there man. I'm not worried about that. My confidence is very high," Rose told reporters at the end of July. "That's the only thing you might see this year, that my confidence level is through the roof."
Only the Bulls don't know if that above-roof confidence will have any effect on who they're getting; nor do they know, beyond doubt, if that player will be healthy enough to stick around.
New Faces, New Questions
Finding a team that had a better offseason than the Bulls is difficult, if not impossible.
Adding Pau Gasol gives the Bulls a more versatile upgrade over Carlos Boozer. Drafting Doug McDermott gives them a lethal, long-ball-burying offensive threat they didn't have last season. Bringing Nikola Mirotic stateside does the same.
And all this has been done, all this offense has been acquired, without brazenly endangering the Bulls' second-ranked defense. The almost-rich are now insufferably rich, giving way to towering expectations— like those of Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta, who, after a thorough investigation zealously contends that the Bulls are Eastern Conference favorites:
They’ve added the key pieces they need to put them over the top after their core has contended together, won together and come up short together. They’re near the mountain's peak, not its base. In those ways, this year’s Bulls better resemble the 2010-11 Dallas Mavericks more than their former selves.
And it was the Mavericks who upended the Heat in that trio’s first year together. Don’t be surprised if the Bulls do the same to the Cavaliers this year.
Such enthusiasm is justified on so many levels, borne not out of deadly disregard but legitimate rationale. The Bulls are dangerous.
In theory. On paper.
Keep coming back to that, because we must. Mostly everything about this Bulls team is tried-and-tested, but not absolutely everything.
Gasol is 34 and has missed 55 games over the last two seasons. Can he consistently contribute for however many minutes coach Tom Thibodeau sets aside for him?
McDermott and Mirotic are rookies who must be prominent parts of Chicago's monstrous machine. One of them should even start. Will they be fit to perform and succeed immediately? Or will they be raw and unable to help in the way many envision?
In the event McDermott or Mirotic starts, the Bulls will be adding three new players to their starting lineup: an inexperienced rookie, Gasol and Rose, who hasn't been a rotational staple for two-plus years.
For the exact same reasons why the new-look Cavaliers cannot be crowned champions in August, the Bulls cannot be viewed as kryptonite for 14 other Eastern Conference teams. For all we know about them, for all the paper tells us, there is still so much we don't understand.
There is still so much the Bulls don't know about themselves.
Clarity Through Patience
Too much, too soon.
This is what the Bulls are facing. Expectations are too high, too prone to ignoring that for every glimmer of hope, there are traces of conditions.
The Bulls won't have a bottom-five offense if all the new faces align. The defense won't be impacted by the play of rookies, Gasol or Rose if all goes according to plan.
The Bulls will be championship contenders and Eastern Conference favorites if Rose remains healthy and dominant.
Talk has instead shifted to mounting morale and its impact on Rose and the Bulls as if next season's standing isn't up for debate, per Bulls.com's Sam Smith:
Rose on upcoming Bulls season: "I’m looking forward to it. The feeling is really coming from the love I’ve been getting from the fans....— Sam Smith (@SamSmithHoops) August 15, 2014
Rose said Bulls fans are "excited, saying stuff that is going to lift your spirits, saying it’s our year, stuff like that."— Sam Smith (@SamSmithHoops) August 15, 2014
Almost everything about the Bulls, though, is up for discussion. The good, the bad, the ugly and the confusing. Everything. That's how it goes when passing judgments on drastically altered teams months away from proving anything, and the Bulls are no different.
Curb the confidence. Gate the gloom. Approach next season with a mind open to the good, bad, ugly and confusing. Just don't place too much, too soon upon an impressive team that hasn't yet lived up to a reputation it didn't earn.