CHICAGO – If the Chicago Bulls are this good without point guard Derrick Rose —not great, but good — then could they really be serious title contenders even this season?
You’d, of course, have said no chance coming into the 2012-13 NBA season, and anytime in the first month as the Bulls lurched along around .500.
But as the snow begins to pile up in the Midwest, there’s something flying under the radar. Santa’s sleigh? No, it’s the Bulls quietly third in fewest points allowed and second in both overall defensive shooting percentage and opponents’ 3-point shooting. And as December is about to close, it’s the Bulls (15-11 through Sunday) hanging in along with Indiana (16-12) at the top of the standings in the Central Division.
It comes as the Bulls last week defeated the streaking New York Knicks for the second time this season, including in New York. The Bulls did it with active defense that thwarted the Knicks’ open court shooting game, the strategy that enabled the Knicks to defeat Miami twice by 20-point margins.
This season, though Bulls management would never publicly acknowledge, is supposed to be about maintaining until Rose can return, perhaps late in the season and playing briefly. The idea is for Rose to jump the mental hurdles of recovery and be at full speed next season.
Last season, the Bulls were 18-9 in games Rose was out injured. But the conventional wisdom was that the team would take a step back with Rose out from the beginning. The Bulls parted most of the reserves from last season, the effective, so-called “Bench Mob.” They also lost center Omer Asik in free agency to the Houston Rockets.
But the new bench arrivals — like Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson and with more playing time for Jimmy Butler — have begun to produce along with holdover Taj Gibson.
In a technicality in the new collective bargaining agreement, the Bulls had to pass on the options for Kyle Korver, C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer and John Lucas in order to have an exception large enough to sign Kirk Hinrich because without Rose the addition of a point guard was most important.
But now with the Bulls apparently able to compete with all the teams in the Eastern Conference, if Rose is able to return according to most estimates in late February or early March, that could be like adding an All-Star and perhaps make the Bulls a legitimate contender by then.
Of course, there is a room filled with ifs in that scenario.
No one truly can say when Rose will return, or if. The Bulls are playing it cautiously after what they believed was a difficult experience when Michael Jordan broke his foot at the beginning of his second season in 1985.
Jordan demanded to return and went public, accusing the Bulls of trying to lose to get a better draft pick. Doctors had told the Bulls Jordan had a 10 percent chance of his career being over if he was hurt again coming back too soon.
Jordan being the gambler that he is said that meant there was a 90 percent chance he would not be. He came back and was fine, eventually scoring a record 63 points against the Celtics in the playoffs.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said there’ll be no such gambles this time.
Rose is in the first season of his massive five-year contract extension.
So the Bulls are being cautious. They are saying he must be cleared by multiple doctors first. Rose is accepting that plan.
Without Rose, the Bulls have been a team limited in offense, 26th in the league in scoring. Luol Deng and Joakim Noah have taken expanded offensive roles and produced. But there is no Rose-like scorer, so the Bulls have relied on defense and a half-court game to even their playing field.
Rose has a step up on Jordan in having won the league MVP in his third season while Jordan won in his fourth. But Jordan also was Defensive Player of the Year. They both are spectacular athletic talents, which remains the concern regarding Rose.
Jordan only had a break, which would heal routinely.
Rose’s injury was much more serious, tearing the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament. If Rose had the same injury back when Jordan got hurt in 1985, there’d be a question of whether he could return and gain back his great athletic ability. A specter hangs over Chicagoans with an ACL tear. Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears probably would have been the best runner in NFL history. But he had that injury and never was the same. But that was in the 1960s.
Can Rose come back with the same, amazing explosiveness that few ever have seen before in pro basketball? Physicians say he should be able to, but until he does he hasn’t.
Which is the concern when Rose does return.
Management’s plan is to work him back slowly — after doctor approval — starting in late February or early March. He’ll be on a minutes limit, like Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio is now,.
There’s a chance doctors will say Rose is not ready. But the Bulls also want Rose to be able to play and put the mental uncertainties of making those basketball moves behind him before presumably returning to full strength next season.
Without Rose, the Bulls have been mostly dismissed. After all, you don’t lose the league MVP and remain a contender. But if you get back a 24-year-old former league MVP with teammates Deng and Noah playing like All Stars and a productive bench, well, maybe you have something that few considered possible, a contending Chicago Bulls team for 2013.
Don’t sleep on them yet.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”