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NBA Sunday: Derrick Rose’s Charging Bulls

With a deep roster and good fortune, Derrick Rose may just lead his Bulls to the NBA Finals.

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The fourth quarter began and the building was silent. As usual, amongst the cackles between teammates and instructions being barked out, Derrick Rose sat on the Chicago Bulls’ bench.

He peered out at the floor. Envious.

His eyes wide, he gazed intently out at the floor. He wished he was playing.

It’s amazing how we take things for granted and learn to truly appreciate them when they are taken away from us. Rose has learned that well.

With his hands clasped on his lap, he thought silently to himself.

This is scary.

Indeed, it was.

His Bulls had shellacked the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden, and they managed to humble Derek Fisher’s triangle playing team without their stud.

And as Rose sat there on the bench, he wore not street clothes, but warm ups. He sat on the bench not out of necessity, but due to abundance.

It was the opening night of the 2014-15 NBA Season, and the Bulls had done their best to show the Knicks that they were not two teams of the same creed.

Yes, it was scary—the most talented Bulls team that Rose has played with. So long as health is on their side, the road to the NBA Finals, for any team, will inevitably run through Chicago.

With the newly acquired Pau Gasol and Derrick Rose leading the charge, the entire conference has been put on notice.

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On May 11, 2010, as the world watched in awe, LeBron James—then of the Cleveland Cavaliers—turned in one of the worst performances of his career. Speculation had run rampant that James had one eye toward greener pastures in one of the league’s bigger markets—Los Angeles, New York and, yes, Chicago.

Over the course of the season, leading into the playoffs and heading into the summer, players and executives alike spent considerable time and effort into wondering how they could successfully woo James—clearly the best player of his generation.

But deep down inside, Rose had another idea.

Deep down inside, he wanted to beat James.

So as movie stars and politicians lined up and fawned over James, Rose was in the gym.

And while James was entertaining Jay Z and Mikhail Prokhorov and considering taking his talents to Brooklyn, Rose was in the gym.

And while James was seemingly counting the amount of championships he could presumably win in Miami if he were able to team up with Dwyane Wade, Rose, deep down inside, was percolating, recalling that it was his team that James ousted in the first round of the 2010 NBA Playoffs.

Historically, in the NBA, at least before 2010, most front offices looked at building contenders as a meticulous chore that required utilizing draft picks wisely. Aside from that, natural progression and inner-growth amongst the other cogs on a title chaster were seen as the keys to building a champion.

Natural progression—yes.

Natural progression—so Rose was in the gym.

Entering the league, there were legitimate concerns about his game. He was a streaky shooter who had questionable shot mechanics. He was a player who was overly reliant on his ability to overpower similarly sized guards. He was ineffective in pick-and-roll situations and operating out of halfcourt sets. Sometimes, it was said, he lacked the court vision and even the motor to become a point guard that could rally and galvanize his teammates.

So after Rose worked hard to make every one of those who doubted whether or not he had the chops to become the best point guard in the game look like idiots, and after he routinely put in 1,000 shots per day over his long summers, he looked at James, his success and wanted to reach similar heights with his hometown Bulls.

As James counted championship rings with Pat Riley and agreed to take his talents to South Beach—while the championship parade that was two years premature took place in Miami in July 2010—Rose was in the gym.

Like a true champion, with the heart of a lion, Rose went out in 2011 and did more than make his teammates better—he defiantly elevated an entire franchise. While James had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, it was Rose who led Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer to a 62-20 regular season record.

It was Rose, not James, who would win the 2011 Most Valuable Player award.

It was Rose, not James, who would become the youngest MVP in NBA history.

And now, after some tumultuous times, heartache and heartbreak, it is Rose, not James, who is leading the team that should be most favored to win the Eastern Conference Championship this season.

——

In LeBron James, it is difficult to bet against the best player in the world—especially once he has guided a team to the top of the mountain two times over. With Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving by his side, James is a part of a new dynamic trio and with them, he hopes to experience championship glory once again.

In Miami, James learned what it took to become a champion but also learned that it wouldn’t happen overnight. Back in 2011, the HEAT were victims of infighting and crushing expectations. Privately, James and Wade wondered if they had made the right decision in teaming up. After beginning the season at just 9-8, they would eventually recover and go on to win the Eastern Conference. Over the next three years, they would dominate the conference, winning the Eastern Conference four consecutive years and winning two NBA Championships in the process.

Overall, the experience has made James better and wiser. Now, he hopes to replicate that history with his Cavaliers.

Yes, it will take time, but the old adage will prove to hold true for these Cavs: you simply cannot teach size. And if there is one weakness that can be exploited with James’ team, it is that.

Irving and Dion Waiters will both be leaned on to do some heavy lifting for the Cavs, but each will yield size to some of the league’s bigger guards and backcourts. Through their first two games, coach David Blatt’s eight men rotation consisted of his starters—James, Love, Irving, Waiters and Anderson Varejao—and Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and Shawn Marion off the bench.

Not one of those players is a seven-footer. Varejao has appreciable size and is certainly capable of playing center for this team, but he has only played in 45 percent of the Cavaliers’ games over the past four years. Out of necessity, coach Blatt may limit his minutes in an attempt to preserve his health.

The team’s other true impact big man is Brendan Haywood, but Haywood is closing in on his 35th birthday and has not lived up to the six-year, $55 million contract the Dallas Mavericks signed him to in July 2010. He was amnestied by the team just two years later and missed all of the 2013-14 season due to a stress fracture in his left foot. That doesn’t exactly foster confidence.

With the HEAT, James proved that with the right talent and pieces surrounding him, he can lead a team to the promise land, despite yielding size to bigger opponents. But at this point, James’ Cavaliers are not the HEAT. A team that is equipped with perimeter defenders who can make the game difficult for James, one that has quick point guards to challenge Irving and one that has effective and athletic rim protectors to disturb Love will have a great opportunity to defeat them—at least a currently constructed—in a long series.

The Bulls just may be that team.

——

Now, in his seventh year, Rose has already experienced some very high highs and some very low lows. From the inspiring playoff performance he turned in against Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics as a rookie to his Most Valuable Player Award in 2011, his ACL tear in 2012 to his meniscus tear in 2013, the wonder kid from the Englewood section of Chicago hopes that he can once again lead the Bulls to the promise land.

Better, wiser, stronger, tougher—Rose now enters his seventh season with the most talented team the Bulls have been able to field in quite some time. They have defenders, shooters, length and depth. The only thing they need at this point: health.

With a few games under his belt and a gold medal in tow from the 2014 FIBA World Cup of Basketball, Rose’s quick first step and explosive athleticism seem to be returning. As the Bulls march on toward their goal of becoming NBA Champions once again, it is one that is as attainable as it is probable, and yes, Rose is leading the charge.

As he began his 2014-15 season with renewed hope and confidence, Rose seemed his normal, quiet and honest self. Like his knees, his candor was fully intact.

“All I think about is winning a championship,” he told the assembled media.

“My emotions were in check,” he answered when asked how it felt to get back in action during a regular season contest.

Each answer came without hesitation—each blunt and to the point.

But there was one question that Rose seemed to ponder carefully when asked. It was regarding his supporting cast.

Do you feel like you have more places to go with the ball now than in the past?

He stopped, and for a moment, Rose’s eyes looked up at the bill of the grey baseball cap he wore inside of the visitor’s locker room at Madison Square Garden.

“Yes,” he said, raising his eyebrows and nodding emphatically.

And as he went down the list, calling out many of his teammates— Gasol, Taj Gibson, Joakim Noah, Aaron Brooks, Kirk Hinrich and Doug McDermott—he cited the strengths of his teammates and, in that moment, seemed reassured about what the Bulls had assembled.

“It eases the game,” Rose would eventually say.

With a coach in Tom Thibodeau who has proven his chops, a bonafide championship-caliber Robin in Pau Gasol, All-Star center Joakim Noah and a neophyte in Jimmy Butler, the Bulls have everything they need to finally rise up out of the Eastern Conference.

For Thibodeau, that’s excellent news.

For Gasol, Noah and the rest of the supporting cast, it’s well deserved.

For Rose, it’s a dream come true.

But for the rest of the Eastern Conference, it is something else, all together.

These Chicago Bulls are charging, and for the Eastern Conference, including James’ Cavaliers—that, in a word, is scary.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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