With Rose back in the fold, the Bulls are contenders again

When Rose takes the floor Saturday in the Bulls’ first preseason game, the sight of him wearing his patented No. 1 jersey instead of an Armani suit will be almost surreal. It’s been about 17 months since he last played an NBA game, but it’s felt even longer.

The Bulls held their own without their MVP, fighting their way to 45 wins and the fifth seed in the East. The Bulls embraced the underdog role en route to a grueling, seven-game triumph over the Brooklyn Nets. To see this team win a series without Rose (or Deng and Hinrich for the tail end of the series, not to mention a hobbled Joakim Noah) was inspiring and even gut-wrenching at times. It was hard to not think of what this team could’ve accomplished if Rose returned in time for the Bulls’ series against the Heat. But he didn’t, despite sounding and looking healthy, and the Bulls faltered in five games to the eventual champs. The underdogs bit off more than they could chew.

But the Bulls aren’t underdogs anymore.

This is the best Bulls team since Michael Jordan was still shooting hoops at the United Center.

Everything is finally coming together for the Bulls. Jimmy Butler will provide the Bulls with its first competent shooting guard since Ben Gordon, Deng and Carlos Boozer aren’t nursing any preseason injuries or illnesses, Joakim Noah has developed into one of the best centers in the league and, of course, Rose is back.

If you need a reminder of how good the Bulls have been with Rose in the lineup, here are few statistics to absorb:

The Bulls are 50-9 in regular-season games in which Rose, Deng, Boozer and Noah play together. Yes, through three seasons the quartet has only played in 59 regular season games out of a possible 230.

The Bulls have led the NBA in regular wins the last two seasons Rose has played (62 in 2010-11 and 50 in the shortened season of 2011-12).

And for you advanced stats nerds out there, Chicago’s offensive efficiency with Rose (points scored per 100 possessions) was 107.5 in 2010-11 and 107.6 in 2011-12. Both of those numbers would’ve equated to a top-five offense this past season. Without Rose, the Bulls’ offensive efficiency was 98.9 in 2010-11, 102.1 in 2011-12 and 100.4 this past season. Those offensive efficiencies would’ve ranked in the bottom half of the league last year.

The Bulls have a top-ranked offense with Rose and became an anemic scoring unit without him. If Chicago can stay healthy the Bulls figure to be among the top teams in the league. Health becomes even more of a concern since the Chicago front office decided to take a break this offseason.

Mike Dunleavy Jr., after signing a sizzling two-year, $6.5 million deal, ended up being the Bulls’ most significant addition by far this summer. The guy’s a knockdown shooter, converting on 42.8 percent of his 3-pointers last season, but Dunleavy isn’t going to put the Bulls over the top by any means. The Bulls also let postseason heroes Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson leave even though they will be paid a combined $4.8 million this season. Five Bulls players will make more than that this season, including Taj Gibson, whose four-year, $33 million deal kicks in.

The starting lineup will be depended on more than ever this season with the depleted bench, but luckily the Bulls possess one of the most potent starting fives in the league. I’ve already mentioned the success Rose, Deng, Boozer and Noah have had in the past, but the future is even brighter. Rose has yet to play with the new Noah, who put up career-highs in points (11.9), rebounds (11.1), assists (4.0), blocks (2.1) and steals per game (1.2) last season. Noah emerged as perhaps the best center in the league last season with Dwight Howard enduring a down year. If you happened to miss Noah’s 24-point, 14-rebound, six-block performance in Game 7 against the Nets, go YouTube it. Add into the mix Jimmy Buckets, who averaged 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while shooting 45.8 percent from downtown as a starter last season (20 games), and the Bulls are in business.

Even though the Bulls have improved greatly, the competition throughout the league has only gotten better.

There is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the Bulls’ season. Rose returning to his pre-injury self is no slam dunk. Saturday, even though it’s only a preseason game, Rose could provide some relief with a good showing.

But if he doesn’t look ready and his surgically repaired knee is still giving him problems, people will start casting doubts on the Bulls’ chances this season. Without Rose, the Bulls have no chance, no matter how improved the supporting cast may be. A preseason game has never been so important.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]