CHICAGO – Welcome back, Derrick Rose. Welcome back to title contention, Chicago Bulls.
With their superstar point guard back after missing a season following knee surgery, the Bulls are once again taking aim at LeBron James and the Miami Heat for supremacy in the Eastern Conference ... and a shot at the NBA championship.
“That’s our No. 1 goal is winning the title,” Rose said. “We’re not worried about anything else. We’re not worried about what people say about us or what’s going on on the outside. We’re just worried about the Bulls and how good we get every day.”
Of course, there’s a good reason why the Bulls believe they can be No. 1. That’s because the man who happens to wear that uniform number is back.
Without Rose, the Bulls were good enough to win 45 games and advance a round in the playoffs despite a long list of injuries and illnesses down the stretch.
Now, their superstar is healthy. The question is: Can Rose regain his MVP form? And how soon?
Rose has looked like his old explosive self in the preseason, scoring 22 points against the Detroit Pistons and following that up with 32 against Indiana, but the intensity is about to ratchet up a notch or two.
He hasn’t played a meaningful game since he crumbled to the floor with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee late in the playoff-opening win over Philadelphia in 2012, an injury that helped send the top-seeded Bulls to a first-round exit.
Rose will be tested right from the start, since the Oct. 29 season opener is in Miami against the two-time defending champions. He won’t have to wait to see how he stacks up against the best in the league, and the same goes for the Bulls as a whole.
“The one thing I do like about our team is the versatility with the lineup,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “[Mike] Dunleavy [Jr.] plays three positions. He can start, come off the bench. [Kirk] Hinrich, to me, is a starter who comes off the bench. Taj [Gibson] is a starter who comes off the bench. That gives you pretty good flexibility.”
Three big questions facing the Bulls:
• Can Joakim Noah stay healthy and make his usual consistent contributions in the post?
• How will Luol Deng play in the final year of his contract before hitting the free-agent market?
• Will Jimmy Butler, who took a big step in Rose’s absence last year, continue his growth and strong play this season?
The answers may play a big role in how 2013-14 goes for the Bulls.