(SportsNetwork.com) - The Chicago Bulls are title contenders with one big if - the health of Derrick Rose.
In 2013-14, for the second consecutive season, Rose went down with a season- ending knee injury. For the second consecutive season, the Bulls' title hopes were dashed.
Rose has played 10 games in the last two seasons. He appears ready to go for the 2014-15 campaign, thanks in large part to his participation for Team USA in their gold-winning romp at this summer's FIBA World Cup.
"For the Bulls fans, I can sit here and say a million times that I'll be fine, but I think the only way to answer all the critics and everyone asking about me, is actually being on the court and actually playing," Rose said. "My confidence in my body is very high. I haven't been worried. This is a new journey for me and I'm trying to take it all in."
Rose's experience in Spain with Team USA wasn't always positive. He struggled badly shooting the basketball, but for Rose, it was more like an extended training camp. His conditioning is fine and Rose is ready for the regular season.
Chicago is once again considered one of the league's elite. Rose is a former MVP and the Bulls, with him at the helm, finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference twice.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Joakim Noah, a ferocious defense and a genius head coach in Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls made the playoffs both seasons Rose was a non-factor.
Last season, they lost in the first round to the Washington Wizards, so change was needed.
It starts with Rose, but the Bulls enjoyed a nice offseason in re-tooling their roster.
They won the sweepstakes for Pau Gasol, one of the best big men available in free agency. He spurned the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder among others to replace Carlos Boozer, who was amnestied by the team in the offseason.
"It's definitely going to be a little change," said Gasol, who spent the last 6 1/2 seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, winning two titles along the way. "I'm just excited."
The Bulls also improved thanks to the arrival of Nikola Mirotic, a decorated international star. The Spanish-Montenegrin big man is skilled and should fit right in with Chicago.
The Bulls also pulled off a draft-night trade to acquire Doug McDermott. The sharp-shooter from Creighton could provide much-needed help in long-range shooting for a Bulls team that finished 24th in three-point percentage last season.
Those were both nice bench moves, but the NBA in 2014 is a star-driven league. Rose is a star when healthy. Gasol is close to that level. The man who really emerged to a different stratosphere is Noah.
Last season, Noah won the Defensive Player of the Year Award and was the First Team All-NBA center.
"I'm excited about this opportunity," said Noah, who had offseason knee surgery, but claims to be fine for the season. "I think we're a very talented group. It's not about talking about it, it's about living it every day."
The Bulls will have no choice to live it under Thibodeau. He demands excellence, especially on the defensive end.
Chicago is littered with great, dependable veterans like Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy, Aaron Brooks, Nazr Mohammed and Kirk Hinrich. Thibs will have to figure a way to slide Mirotic and McDermott into the rotation, but it's a nice luxury to have.
The roster is loaded. They have stars. This season, the Bulls just have to keep them healthy.
2013-14 Results: 48-34, 2nd in Central; Lost in East quarterfinals to Washington
ADDITIONS: F Pau Gasol, F Doug McDermott, F Nikola Mirotic, G Aaron Brooks, G E'Twaun Moore
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Derrick Rose SG- Jimmy Butler SF- Mike Dunleavy PF- Pau Gasol C- Joakim Noah
KEY RESERVES: F Taj Gibson, F Nikola Mirotic, G Kirk Hinrich, C Nazr Mohammed, G Tony Snell, G Aaron Brooks, F Doug McDermott
FRONTCOURT: Noah posted career-highs 12.6 ppg, 11.3 rpg and 5.4 apg. That last number, the assists, really separated Noah from most of the other centers in the league. Noah was known primarily as a defensive player, but last season, Thibodeau ran the offense through him and his exceptional passing ability.
Defensively, Noah has no peer. He can defend quicker bigs on the perimeter and isn't afraid to bang in the interior. Noah is maybe the toughest player in the league. He yields nothing.
Noah is also a sensational leader. It's not all about the rah-rah stuff, which Noah is always seen doing plenty, but the mindset he brings. Noah is a rock for this team.
Gasol's production declined under Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni. Gasol wasn't a good fit in that high-octane system, but he did average 17.4 ppg and 9.7 rpg. He has plenty left in the tank offensively.
"A couple of rough seasons after a great run, and a couple factors played in," said Gasol. "It felt right to make the decision. Life is about making tough decisions."
Gasol is not a good defender. That might be a problem for Thibodeau. Gibson could see fourth-quarter minutes since he's who Thibs trusts at the moment. Gasol will give the Bulls a low-post presence they haven't had since Boozer first came to the Windy City. He's a legitimate second scoring option to Rose and that's something the Bulls haven't had either.
Dunleavy was a nice fit in Chicago during the regular season. He started 61 games, averaged 11.3 ppg and shot 38 percent from long range, which was a four-year low. Dunleavy's numbers improved during the postseason, but he's not fleet of foot. He's savvy, a good fit for Thibodeau.
BACKCOURT: A healthy Rose is a force. Did you remember that? His last full season in the NBA, he averaged 21.8 ppg, 7.9 assists, shot 44 percent from the field and 31 percent from 3-point range.
He looked tentative last season. There's no other way to say it. Rose did score 20-plus in two of his final games before he tore his right meniscus. Rose had surgery and was gone again.
Since our most recent memory of Rose was in Barcelona, his averages were not astounding. He averaged 4.8 ppg and 3.1 apg. He shot 35 percent from the field and a depressing 1-for-19 from 3-point range. Again, it's not too big a reason to push the panic button since Rose was basically getting his conditioning back, but based on last season's poor start, the Bulls will be very mindful of how Rose looks early.
Perhaps his stint with USA Basketball will give Rose the confidence he needs to start aggressively.
Butler is a wonderful young wing man. He shared the league lead in minutes played per game last season at 38.7 and naturally all of his numbers skyrocketed. His shooting percentages declined and in both from the floor and from long range, pretty dramatically. Butler's offensive game is based on slashing and crashing the boards, but if he can get back to 38 percent 3-point shooting like he did in 2012-13, he might become a force.
Butler averaged 13.1 ppg without having anything called for him. That's a good sign, plus, he's a great defender. Butler finished fourth in the league in steals last season, but that's not always a great barometer of a good defender. However you diagnose it, Butler's a plus-defender, earning a Second- Team All-Defensive spot.
This is a big season for Butler. He's due a contract extension and is completely free at the end of the season. Chicago needs to lock him up, but has a lot of money locked into players.
BENCH: Gibson is a great candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. He averaged 13.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg and shot 48 percent from the floor. Gibson is a good defender and is double tough. Rumors abound that Gibson is upset at not starting this season, but he'll see plenty of minutes. Thibodeau trusts him in fourth quarters and that probably won't change given Gasol's age and indifference to defense.
Hinrich would be a great second-unit guy, but he's been pressed into a bigger role by Rose's injuries. He's a combo guard who can make an occasional three, handle and defend.
Snell may fall totally out of favor this season.
Brooks is still a capable scoring point guard. Thibs has loved guys like this in the past - Nate Robinson, D.J. Augustin come to mind.
Mohammed will play sparingly.
McDermott is a shooter by name, but he can do more. He should have legitimate NBA range when he walks into the league. McDermott will have trouble keeping up defensively, so he may have some trouble consistently staying in the rotation.
Mirotic's a skilled European player who can create, despite his 6-foot-10 frame. Mirotic looked great in the Bulls' first preseason game, then awful in the second. That will be the norm if he cracks Thibodeau's rotation.
The two new guys will have to work hard to earn Thibodeau's trust.
"The two young guys, they've got a lot of work to do, but the thing I like about them is they're workers," Thibodeau said of his two rookies.
COACHING: Thibodeau can be found in the top 10 of Coach of the Year voting every season. He is a former winner of that award and is the fastest coach in NBA history to win 100 games.
Thibs is a defensive genius. He demands the best from his players and they respond. There are a lot of superlatives that one can use to describe Thibodeau and he earned them all. The records he put up
OUTLOOK: With a healthy Rose, the Bulls are certainly Eastern Conference title contenders and probably NBA Championship contenders.
This roster is stocked with two of the league's best in Rose and Noah, two fringe All-Stars in Gasol and Butler, plus a gaggle of veterans and intriguing youngsters.
The Bulls will do it with defense. They ranked first in the league in opponents' scoring, second in opponents' field-goal percentage and seventh guarding the three-point line.
Chicago's problem has been scoring. Rose and Gasol will help that, maybe even Brooks, too. All of that should come together to spell a very good season in the Windy City.
The Bulls should finish no worse than second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers. It's almost all on Rose and his knees.