Commentary: Awaiting the return

Set to avenge their Eastern Conference Championship bow out to the Miami Heat at the end of the previous year, the 62-20 first-place Chicago Bulls entered the lockout-shortened 2011-2012 season on a mission. The championship was in reach, and they were well-equipped to advance further headed by the reigning MVP Derrick Rose and Coach of the Year, Tom Thibodeau.

Fast-forward to the waning minutes of the Bulls’ Game 1 matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, and a title suddenly didn’t seem so certain as Rose lay on the court clutching his left knee in agony.

Soon after, Bulls fans’ worst nightmare was confirmed: Rose had torn his ACL and would be sidelined for 8-12 months. The Bulls’ championship ambitions were ripped away the second Rose went down, and the team eventually lost to the Sixers in six games. Minus Rose, arguably Chicago’s most popular professional athlete since Michael Jordan, the Bulls were sent into damage control mode.

Following the season, Thibodeau teamed up with General Manager Gar Forman to hopefully build a contender out of the still “Rose-less” Bulls. As if the loss of hometown hero Rose wasn’t enough, the fan-favorite and team strength otherwise known as the “Bench Mob,” was effectively dismantled. The Bulls’ losses included point guards CJ Watson and John Lucas III, sharpshooter Kyle Korver and defensive specialist Ronnie Brewer. When it finally got to the point where things could not get worse, the Houston Rockets wooed away valuable defensive specialist Omer Asik with $24 million, an offer the Turkish center could not refuse.

Financially strapped, the Bulls filled out their team with the bottom of the scrapheap. Forman, Thibodeau and company restocked with the underwhelming signings of Kirk Hinrich, Nazr Mohammed, Vladimir Radmonivic, Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson.

Come October, Thibodeau and his team were set to begin the season with no Rose and no expectations. The optimistic fans had hoped that the Bulls could tread water at .500 until Rose’s return in mid-February and the pessimistic fans had already begun looking toward the 2013-2014 season. Thibodeau acknowledged things were going to be tough without Rose and stressed how hard his team would have to play.

In an interview with “The Chicago Sun-Times,” Thibodeau said, ”I think if we’re doing the right things each and every day and everyone is putting everything they have into it, we’ll improve. I don’t think we can ever lose sight of how hard we’re going to have to play to be successful when we’re short-handed.’Initially, defensive-minded Thibodeau pushed fundamentals on his new cast of players. The team played above expectations and at the end of the 2012 calendar year, the Bulls were 16-13, good enough for the No. 5 spot in the Eastern Conference.

As 2013 rolled around, Thibodeau’s team caught fire. After two months of learning, Thibodeau’s philosophies started to stick and the players began to mesh. Even with the lack of a legitimate scorer, the team was streaking. The ability of the Bulls to win games on the road pushed them over the top. The team’s apparent mental toughness earned them the best record on the road in the NBA. At the start of their run in January, the Bulls collected road wins over top opponents in the East including the Miami Heat and New York Knicks. It was at this point it was very evident – this team is real with or without Rose.

The team, which grew accustomed to surprising teams day in and day out, finished January with a 12-4 record. Combining defense and team chemistry, the Bulls became one of the most entertaining teams to watch. Other than their defense ranking third in points allowed per game, there is no singular reason or player you can credit for their success. In a superstar league, a star scorer usually propels teams to victory. However, this Bulls squad embraces the more novel concept of getting valuable contributions from its entire roster.

With veterans Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah providing the team’s voice and leadership, the attitude is always there. This team embraces being the underdog. Speaking of underdogs, the team has seen contributions from players who figured to be buried on the bench, including Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler. Both have taken advantage of their minutes, with spark plug Robinson scoring 11.5 points per game, and second-year Marquette product Jimmy Butler averaging a solid 6.9 points and 3.4 rebounds per contest.

And now, Derrick Rose’s return is imminent. Rose, who was cleared for full contact by team doctors last week, figures to return to the starting lineup after the All-Star break.

Regardless of the Bulls’ success thus far, the fans don’t look at the team the same way without their superstar – the Bulls’ popularity has dwindled despite their winning ways. Meanwhile, Rose’s popularity has only grown during his time out. In light of his injury, Rose’s sponsor Adidas launched an ad campaign with the simple but effective name “The Return.” Playing daily on national television, the whole country has become aware that Chicago’s superstar is coming back. Not only that, but Rose is coming back to a team that hasn’t lost much of a step in his absence. Now is the time for fans that hopped off the bandwagon to climb back in. The wheels have been oiled for another Bulls’ playoff run. “The Return” is near.