Derrick Rose is on his way back as the 2011 NBA Most Valuable Player started practicing with the Bulls last week, but that appears to be having a negative affect on the Bulls as they've suffered a pair of blow out losses since his return to practice.
Rose started practicing without contact on December 20. The immediate impact of his pending return was positive as they came away with a 110-106 win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, but it was followed with a pair of dreadful performances as they were blown out by the Atlanta Hawks the next night and then the Houston Rockets at home on Christmas Day.
Adding a player of Rose's caliber would help any team in the NBA, but the Bulls were playing well without him and the thought of his return leads to quite a few questions with their roster.
Without Rose, the Bulls have struggled offensively as they rank 23rd in offensive efficiency. Their defense has been solid all season, but not quite up to the level it was the last two seasons. Still, they've had just enough to stay near the top of the Eastern Conference Central Division, because they've gotten offensive contributions from a number of backcourt players this season, players whose minutes will be cut once Rose returns.
Thibodeau appears comfortable with Kirk Hinrich as he plays good defense, protects the ball and has potential to stretch the floor with a career 38 percent mark from beyond the arc. Although he's struggled shooting this season, Thibodeau has complimented his ability to run the team and the little things he does throughout the course of a game.
The Bulls may also need to keep Marco Belinelli as he is the only player on the team shooting above 40 percent from three-point range. The ability to stretch the floor is key with a player like Rose penetrating.
Two of the Bulls top scoring options face uncertain futures with the return of Rose as both Nate Robinson and Richard Hamilton—who rank first and second on the team in points per 36 minutes—have been rumored to be on the way out once Rose is ready to carry the load on the offensive end.
Both Robinson and Hamilton have carried the Bulls' offense at times, but are inconsistent offensively and don't play the kind of defense coach Tom Thibodeau likes. With Robinson, there's no telling what player you're getting from game-to-game and with Hamilton, there is no telling when he's going to be available as he's played in less than half of the team's games since signing with them prior to last season.
With the questionable injury histories of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls need to add depth to their frontcourt, when Rose returns they will have a log jam in the back court, something has to give and the players know it.
For most of the season Thibodeau ordered Rose not to be around the team. He wanted them to play as if there was no Derrick Rose, but with him returning to practice last week, it is impossible to ignore that his return is near and the futures of some players is up in the air.
When Rose returns this problem will sort itself out. Hinrich seems to be a lock to stay, if for no other reason because his statistics don't match his contract, making him difficult to trade. The other three players will be battling for minutes and likely a roster spot.
Even though he's practicing, Rose is still believed to be at least a month away from return. He hasn't been cleared for contact yet and the Bulls want to make sure he is 100 percent before they put him on the court, meaning no minute limits like Minnesota is doing with Ricky Rubio. Until Rose is back on the court for a game, Thibodeau needs to re-focus his team or they could start a downhill slide that even Rose can't save them from.