Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Return of Rose has Bulls on the Rise

550 days. That's how long we've waited for this moment, the moment where Derrick Rose returns to play in a game that counts. All of the drama, hearsay, and sports media buffoonery can now, finally, be put to rest. Sure, there will be the questions about how his knee is holding up, and whether missing a game here and there is really that important (or for the PTI talking head morons of the world - "what does this mean big picture-wise?"). But for the most part, he's back. We have the pleasure of getting to watch Derrick Rose play basketball for OUR team again, and as this preseason has attested, just how amazing he is at that particular thing. Because when you think about it, his supposed lack of public relations skills, his overreliance on his family for their bad advice, and his to-a-default humility don't matter at all. He's a basketball player, and one of the best in the world at it.

Rose doesn't have the overt, menacing, in-your-face competitive drive that Michael Jordan had. Really, no one does. He's a fierce competitor, he just does it quietly. He does remind me of MJ in one area that makes both special - motivation. Both had the incredible ability to turn any slight, real or imagined, into a reason to push themselves and their teammates. Remember the offseason frenzy of 2010? You know, the one with The Decision and its residual effects. That was the same offseason that culminated with Derrick entering preseason training camp not only saying that he didn't actively recruit LeBron James or anyone else, but wondering aloud why he couldn't win the MVP. That season, he exploded onto the national scene, leading the Bulls to the best record in the NBA, the Eastern Conference Finals, and of course, the MVP.

Rose has even more drive and motivation this year. He's sat back and listened for 17 months about how he was lazy, how he was scared, how he wouldn't be the same after he returned to the court. He saw the media reports - even if he would never admit it - of how he was letting his brother or Adidas dictate his career. That whole time, Derrick was working. He was in the gym, getting bigger, stronger, faster, and quicker. I'll be honest, I was among those that really had no idea how Derrick would look upon his return. We all heard the reports of how amazing he was playing in practice, how his vertical leap improved five inches, how much stronger his upper body was, and how much he personally had taken the ways of nutrition and stretching seriously. But no one knew for sure until he came back. 

Once he did - and yes I know it was preseason - it looked like the energy that Rose has harnessed for the last 17 months was released upon the NBA. He looks so much stronger in his upper body, he appears more mature, and his trademark introverted confidence has shifted to one more extrovert in nature. He's slashing to the basket with fury, and once the rust shakes off he'll start landing those shots more consistently. Not like he wasn't productive regardless; his per minute production was outstanding. It isn't even the minutes, though. Rose just looks like a player coming back with a vengeance. He's eager, confident, and ready to dominate again. I wouldn't put another run at an MVP past him, along with Comeback Player of the Year and a deep Bulls playoff run.

Butler's emergence could be key
Obviously, this is good news for the Bulls. With Rose in tow, potentially better than he has ever been, the Bulls are once again the premier challengers to Miami for the Eastern Conference crown. The team is healthy again, and I feel that the atmosphere around the club right now is of quiet, eager, confidence. Bulls management loves the potential for Jimmy Butler at the shooting guard position, and although I remain on the fence I'm starting to see their point. I feel that he's more of a natural small forward, but his athleticism, confidence, and defensive prowess give him versatility that coaches dream of. It'll be especially interesting to see how he and Rose play together, as they barely did in the year Butler was on the team before Rose was injured. If Butler can improve his game on the same level as he did last year, it'll give the Bulls one of the best backcourts in the league.

I would be lying if I said that I didn't have some concerns with Luol Deng, who admitted that he needed to take lots of time off in the offseason before fully recovering from the sickness that sidelined him last year. You could look at it though, as a good thing. Deng is the player most often brought up in criticisms of Tom Thibodeau's minute "abuse", so perhaps having some real time off from basketball could rejuvenate him for this upcoming season. Combine that with indications from Thibs that he will give Deng and other veterans more time off to prepare them for the playoffs, and there is a recipe for a deep playoff run coming up.

We haven't had a chance to see much from Joakim Noah this preseason, but what we have seen from the frontcourt is encouraging. Taj Gibson has been overtly impressive, and needs a strong season to both justify his contract from last year and the soon to come amnestying of Carlos Boozer. If Gibson doesn't perform well this year, the Bulls could be in a salary-cap bind if they're unable to jettison Boozer's contract because they're not confident Gibson can get the job done. But from what we've seen, Taj has stopped pressing to show he deserved his contract, so the interplay between him and Boozer should keep the PF position a strength of the team. Also, if Noah can stay healthy, we saw last year the level he's taken his game. He's a true catalyst and leader for this team, and his on-court production has gotten to the point where it can keep up with his energy. He's not just a dive-on-the-floor guy anymore; he's an All-Star.

It's strange. This could be the most unpredictable Bulls season in this regime, and yet, I feel more confident about this upcoming season than any of the previous three. There's something that just feels right. The Bulls are out to prove people wrong, led by their resurgent, recovered MVP. They have the right coach, they have the right players, they have the right mindset, they just have the right team. Miami is fresh off two championships, and although they surely enter this season the favorites to win it again, they face off, for this first game and for the rest of the season, with a fresh, hungry, disciplined, physical, and tough Bulls team. I fully believe that the Bulls are capable of making this the year that they win their first franchise title without Michael Jordan. Tip off can't come soon enough.