Blueprint for Chicago Bulls to Reclaim Title Contender Status

Haddon Anderson@HaddonAndersonAnalyst IJanuary 28, 2013

A healthy Rose is the foremost need for the Bulls to be true contenders.
A healthy Rose is the foremost need for the Bulls to be true contenders.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The blueprint for the Chicago Bulls to reclaim title contender status isn't complex. It hinges on the return of Derrick Rose and if he can quickly regain his MVP-caliber form.

The Bulls have led the league in regular season wins in each of the past two seasons. At the core of their success has been Rose, who vaults this team into a title contender when he's on the floor. After his injury in last year's playoffs, it was clear the Bulls' title hopes were dashed due to his absence.

Yet even without Rose, the Bulls have remained competitive. This was evident last season when they went 18-9 while he was in street clothes, and it continues to be seen this season in their 27-17 record.

Many thought the Bulls would be irrelevant this campaign without Rose for much of the year, but now Chicago appears to be an Eastern Conference dark horse who could peak at just the right time.

But Rose must be featured on their quest to reclaim title contender status. While they have been impressive without him, they shouldn't be considered a contender. The Rose-less Bulls could potentially win a playoff series due to their gritty defense, but they lack the firepower to do major damage in May and June.

Therefore, Rose's health and return to his usual self is imperative to the Bulls' 2013 title hopes. His superstar abilities are what distinguish Chicago as a true threat to the Miami Heat in the East.

Let's envision a healthy Rose thrown in the mix (in the next month or so) of a Chicago team that contains two 2013 All-Stars -- Luol Deng (2nd selection) and Joakim Noah (1st selection). Plus, Carlos Boozer is also having an All-Star-worthy year.

It shouldn't take long for Rose to mesh with his skilled teammates. It's not like he's a mid-season acquisition who needs to adjust to new teammates and a style of play. Rose has played and succeeded with Deng, Noah and Boozer, as well as others, and should establish continuity in the Bulls' system rather quickly.

If this happens, the Bulls suddenly become every bit as good as what they were the past two seasons, when they went 62-20 and 50-16, respectively. They'll have no problem securing a top-four seed in the East and should roll through their opening round playoff series (even if it's against a rising team like the Brooklyn Nets).

But how do they get to that next level, where they're truly a contender? What does the blueprint proclaim as these steps?

Two steps are pivotal in this: 1) Continued health; and 2) Offensive potency.

Continued health is the obvious one. Not only is it foundational for Rose to return and stay healthy, but it is also extremely important for their other core pieces to avoid untimely wounds. 

This is especially true of Chicago's front line, where there isn't depth after Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. If one of these three encounter an injury late in the season or in the playoffs, this could spell doom for Chicago.

Now, an injury to a player like Richard Hamilton, Kirk Hinrich or Nate Robinson could likely be overcome, since Chicago has backcourt depth, but overall, continued health is a must for this team. If last year's playoffs taught Bulls fans anything, it was this.

Offensive potency is the second key step, because the Bulls' defense isn't going to be their downfall. They've been a top-rated defensive unit ever since Coach Tom Thibodeau arrived, and this staple to their playing style doesn't figure to fade.

Their offensive potency has been a cause for concern. It's certainly been a concern in many of their losses in this season's first few months (they are currently 25th in the league in points per game). Their offensive woes were distinctly on display this past Saturday when they only notched 73 points against the hapless Washington Wizards.

The easy response to this is that Rose will cure this problem. He most certainly helps cure it in a big way, but he doesn't eliminate the issue. The chart below illustrates this. While the team scored more in 2010-11 and 2011-12 (when Rose was regularly in the lineup), they still weren't an upper echelon offensive team.

For instance, their inept offensive potency is what hurt them two seasons ago against Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals. Rose was the only Bull who could create his own shot, which Miami surely figured out. Rose was thus burdened with the pressure of trying to do much, prompting offensive struggles, particularly late in games.

Perhaps what the Bulls need more of is offensive maturity. Players like Deng, Boozer and newcomer Marco Belinelli must embrace the big stage of the playoffs and tally eye-opening efforts against elite opponents. If these players enable the Bulls to diversify their approach and take pressure off Rose, then Chicago's offensive potency will be of no concern.

But these supporting players must emerge and prove that the Bulls are potent enough to produce in the biggest of stages and in the biggest of moments.

The promising thing in this regard is that the Bulls' supporting players have learned to play without Rose. They've been forced to mature offensively and have surely gained confidence in this process. This development should only help the Bulls come the playoffs, because players have learned how to step up and embrace more solidified roles. Jimmy Butler is ample evidence of this in the past few weeks.

What is evident in this blueprint is that things are pretty simple for them to reclaim title contender status. Unlike most teams, they don't need to make any pertinent trades. They don't need to vastly improve on the defensive end. They don't need a new coach to implement schemes more suitable to personnel.

Their formula to win is easy. They simply need the presence of Rose as well as complete health across their front line, and they also need consistent offensive potency that stabilizes their approach.

If these objectives occur, the Bulls could not only be looking at joining the ranks of other true contenders -- such as Miami, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers -- they could soon find themselves reaching the NBA pinnacle and hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy as soon as June.