Will Derrick Rose’s return turn the Bulls into contenders?

By: Jay Wallis

The 2012 NBA Finals turned out to be just what everybody expected before the season even began.

Thunder vs. Heat. Durant vs. LeBron. Big 3 vs. Big 3.

It was inevitable with the way those two teams found their rhythm down the stretch. And in terms of being built for the long haul, the Heat and Thunder stand out from the rest.

As the 2012-2013 NBA season moves past the midway point, there’s one question that everyone would like to know:


David Sherman/Getty

Can anyone get in the way of the reigning conference champions?

I’m going to tell you the one group of players that you probably aren’t thinking of that just might have the best chance to simmer the Heat come playoff time.

Not the Knicks. Not the Nets. Not the Pacers.

It’s the team that has finished with the No. 1 seed in the East the past two seasons. Get ready – those Bulls are coming.

A torn ACL is something no one ever wants to see, no matter the sport or the athlete. (Just look at how the Pierce and the NBA reacted to Rondo’s season-ending injury.)

When Derrick Rose sustained that fatal ACL injury last April, it sent an entire city into depression. Chicago knew their 2012 championship aspirations had taken a major hit. To nobody’s surprise, the eighth-seeded Sixers took down the top team in the East before the playoffs even got going.

Two years ago, the new-look Miami Heat absolutely stifled Rose and his Bulls, needing only five games to finish them off. LeBron James shut Rose down, and he looked nothing like the MVP he had been throughout the regular season. When Chicago was eliminated in Game 5, Rose shot an abysmal 9-29 from the field, and his final shot of the season was blocked by James. It was clear the Bulls did not have the offensive pieces to compete with the star-studded Heat.

So, why would a (currently) Rose-less squad with the same four core players have a better chance of beating a team that has only gotten better (the championship speaks for itself) since they last faced them in the playoffs?

Even though Chicago decided to modify its entire bench in the offseason, it’s the change from the returning players that makes this team so dangerous.

It was clear this would be a different Bulls team from the very beginning, for better or for worse. Players would have to step up. One of those players was first-time All-Star Joakim Noah.

Even though his scoring and rebounding has only improved slightly, the other aspects of his game have grown. This year, Noah has increased his assists from 2.5 to 4.2, blocks from 1.4 to 2.2, and steals from 0.6 to 1.3. Those are all career-highs.

The former Florida Gator that came into the league as a one-dimensional bruiser has become one of, if not the most well-rounded center in the league. He would not have been able to develop his offensive game as much if Rose had played for the entire season. Noah can now be a source of distribution on the offensive end of the court – something Rose mainly did prior to his injury.

Jimmy Butler has emerged as a big-time contributor for the Bulls this season. (

Jimmy Butler has emerged as a big-time contributor for the Bulls this season. (

Just when the Bulls thought a torn ACL for their leader was enough injury from the basketball gods, scoring leader Luol Deng (17.3 PPG) began to have hamstring problems in late January, forcing him to be day-to-day for many day-to-days.

But a silver lining came out of this injury. A major silver lining.

Swingman Jimmy Butler never really got the opportunity to get consistent minutes during his rookie campaign last year, mainly because head coach Tom Thibodeau has fallen in love with draining as many possible minutes out of Deng. Every. Single. Night. By playoff time, Butler was completely out of the rotation.

This season has given Butler the chance to get more substantial minutes and he has responded by playing some hardnosed, energetic basketball. Once Deng went down with his hamstring injury, Butler did not take any time to go from an energy guy to a go-to guy.

Since being inserted into the starting lineup, Butler has averaged 15.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and shot 51.3 percent from the field. And in the Bulls most recent two wins over the Bobcats and Bucks, Butler has poured in 37 points on 15-of-22 shooting. He came off the bench for both of these performances with Deng coming back from his injury. (Even though Butler has continued to play well with Deng in the lineup, I believe he has the handles and quickness to start at shooting guard – wouldn’t Richard Hamilton serve his role better as a sixth man, anyway?)

I can’t help but see so much Paul George in this athletic small forward, not to mention the fact that he weighs one pound less and measures one inch less than the Pacers All-Star. Butler has the raw offensive and defensive abilities that just need time to develop until he turns into the vital cog he can be for Chicago’s future.

While Noah and Butler have turned themselves into brand-new players, Deng and Carlos Boozer have gone about their business, playing their role effectively. All of this has led to the Bulls holding the three seed in the East and sitting only 2 ½ games back from being the top seed yet again. Oh, and quick reminder: they have played this entire season without their best player.

Yes, the team has held its own so far, but when it comes down to the playoffs, we all know this team is going nowhere without a tenacious Derrick Rose.

Which brings up the big question: will Rose be anything close to the same player when he comes back from such major surgery?

When you look at this kid’s work ethic and desire to fight back as soon as possible, it seems reasonable to think he will be able to come back a similar force as before.

Take Adrian Peterson for example. Also suffering an ACL injury, many didn’t think A.P. could come back at all this past year. All he did was go on to rush for 2097 yards and have a possible MVP season. Even though every athlete’s situation is different, Peterson even told “The Waddle & Silvy Show” on ESPN 1000 that he believes Rose will return to MVP form, due to his determination and the type of athlete he is.

So come playoffs, the Bulls could see this as a starting lineup:

Rose, Butler, Deng, Boozer, Noah.

Will we see the same, explosive Derrick Rose when he returns? (NBA/Getty)

Will we see the same, explosive Derrick Rose when he returns? (NBA/Getty)

Coming in off the bench, Hamilton provides a veteran presence, Marco Belinelli spreads the floor with his three-point shooting, and Nate Robinson and Taj Gibson bring instant energy off the bench. These are the characteristics a team needs from their bench to be successful.

But over all of these individuals, Chicago has the key ingredient to tie everything together – defense. Since Thibodeau became head coach three seasons ago, in terms of points allowed, the Bulls have ranked second (91.1), first (88.2) and currently third (90.9) in the league. The problem has been their ability to put the ball in the bucket in the playoffs. They had one source of offense that could be shut off come crunch time.

But now they have options. Now they have a new Noah. Now they have a fresh Butler. They have multiple players with unique skill sets that can attack you in different ways, something they couldn’t even come close to doing two years ago.

If the Bulls find a way to match up with the Heat in the playoffs, they could have the depth that hurt Miami when Indiana took a 2-1 lead on them last year but have the star power to finish them off, unlike the Pacers. Where will their weakness lie?

I’m not here to tell you that the Bulls will without a shadow of a doubt take down the Heat. Let’s make it clear that the Heat are the reigning champs, and it is their conference to lose. LeBron James is having his most efficient season yet and looks to be on his way to contending for his fourth MVP in five years.

But if you think it will be a cakewalk for LeBron and his celebrity teammates, think again. Because if they find themselves squared off against a healthy Chicago Bulls squad, we might all be reminded of the man formerly known as MVP and his teammates that can now support him.

We might watch a Bulls team finally put it all together and beat the Heat.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *