This preseason the prognostications regarding the Bulls were not good. Most predicted, at best, a late-season push upon Derrick Rose's return to make the postseason. Many entertained the possibility the Bulls would be in the lottery. Contrary to those expectations, the Bulls are positioned to push their way not just into the playoffs, but into the title picture when Rose returns.
At present, the Eastern Conference is jumbled at the top, as five teams are within 3.5 games of the top seed.
The Bulls trail the conference-leading Miami Heat by only three games in the loss column and beat the Heat in Miami in their first and, to date, only meeting.
They trail the New York Knicks by just two in the loss column and have won both of their games against the Knicks.
They're even with the Hawks, who have lost three in a row and seem headed in the opposite direction.
They've been playing leapfrog with the Indiana Pacers most of the season for the division lead and currently have lost one fewer game than the Pacers, though they trail by half a game overall.
The Bulls hold the second-best conference record at 15-5 as well, which bodes well for future tiebreakers.
In effect, they're in contention already even without Rose. Of the other teams in contention, only one stands to gain an important player, the Pacers, and while Danny Granger is a nice player, he's definitely no Derrick Rose.
Part of the problem here is that the Bulls, apart from Rose, are a vastly underrated, under-appreciated frontcourt. No one would argue that any of them are the best at their position, but as a group, they form one of the elite frontcourts in the NBA.
Luol Deng was an All-Star last year. Joakim Noah looks to be one this year. Carlos Boozer was one twice in Utah. While he's not as productive as he was then, on a per-minute basis, he's still productive.
Taj Gibson, after a bit of a rocky start, is finding his groove.
Jimmy Butler is turning into one of the steals of the 2011 draft. His defense is outstanding, as evidenced by his 13.0 opponents' player efficiency rating according to 82games.com. And per basketball-reference, only three rookies from the 2011 draft with at least 500 minutes have more win shares per 48 minutes.
As a group, the Bulls frontcourt is one of the top all-around units in the NBA. Based on net efficiency, per hoopstats.com, they are the third best frontcourt in the NBA this season, and over the last 10 games, they are the best.
The Bulls revamped their bench this summer. Whether it was for "basketball reasons" as the management says, or for cost-saving measures as the critics say, two things are certain: First, the new bench struggled at first, and second, it is coming around now.
In November, Bench Mob 2.0 was on the bench more than they "mobbed," and when they were on the court, they were outplayed. Three things have happened, though.
First, with Richard Hamilton's injury hiatus, Marco Belinelli moved into the starting lineup. While there, he finally found his rhythm with the team and has been playing much better of late. Since his breakout game against the Cavaliers on December 5, he's been averaging 14.2 points per game with a .504 effective field-goal percentage.
Hamilton has returned, moving Belinelli back to the bench, but his time with the starters has helped him to strengthen the bench.
Second, Taj Gibson, after signing his extension, went through the must-prove-I'm-worth-it slump many players encounter, but he too has started to find his way. Over his last 10 games, he's averaging 15.4 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes on .524 shooting.
Third, the bench, as a whole, has grown more accustomed to playing Tom Thibodeau's defense as they play together, and the new group has gotten more accustomed with both one another and the old group.
As a result, while they were only the 17th in net efficiency over November, over the last 10 games they've been the ninth-best unit in the NBA. They have also given up the fewest points of any team to opposing benches.
Thus, the Bulls have used two things to stay in contention without Derrick Rose: superior frontcourt play and improving bench play.
They have been winning in spite of being only 19th in the league in net production from their point guards.
Enter Derrick Rose, one of the best point guards in the league, if not one of the five best players of any position in the league. If the Bulls can run with the bulls without Derrick Rose, it stands to reason that once they turn their biggest weakness into a strength, they'll be outrunning their competition.
Nor is it like there is no precedent either. In each of the last two seasons, the Bulls starting core of Rose, Deng, Boozer and Noah have won the most games in the NBA each year. While some would argue that regular-season success doesn't translate into postseason success, it's a bit of an opportunistic argument.
Realistically, it's premature to say that. They've only played two years together. Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan didn't win their first two seasons together either. And they were actually healthy in the postseason, something Rose hasn't been the last two years.
Some will argue that Miami already beat the Bulls handily in the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago. They did beat them, but hardly handily. Two games could have been altered with a different outcome on the final shot. That's hardly decisive.
But beyond that, this isn't the same team. The Bulls were shut down because Rose was the only payer who had the ability to create his own shot. As a result, the Heat were able to trap Rose and shut him down. Richard Hamilton, Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli are all players who can circumvent that strategy.
On three different occasions, the Bulls have beaten the Heat without Rose even playing since that series. Does that mean that they "will" beat the Heat?
No. But it certainly puts it in the realm of possibility. If they can beat Miami without Rose even playing, they certainly have proven they can beat the Heat without excessive reliance on Rose.
But there is one more thing that needs to be considered, and that's the proverbial potential of the silver lining behind Rose's injury. It's not Noah's game elevating to another level, or Boozer's game being rediscovered, although both those things are true too.
No, it's that in the 2010-11 season, part of the problem was that Rose was physically spent by the time the postseason started, and that carried into the postseason. He didn't have his jumper, and as a result, his three-point shooting suffered greatly. That was complicated by the ankle sprain he suffered early on.
This year, though, he could be hitting his stride right when the postseason begins. While other stars like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have been logging heavy minutes, Rose will be comparably fresh. It's possible that this year is the Bulls' best chance yet, contrary to what many believe.
In fact, the lack of belief in this group might be another thing that works in their favor. What other team that has won the regular-season title two years running has ever faced lower expectations?
There's no pressure on a group which has proven they can win games and can beat anyone in the league, even if they haven't won a title.
It's a group that has defied expectations all season, and one poised to defy them even more once the postseason begins. Don't count out the Bulls for a championship run in 2013. It's a distinct possibility.