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Scrappy Bulls Season One Of What Might Have Been

By Benjy Lipsman in News on May 17, 2013 3:30PM

Finally, we can declare that Derrick Rose will miss the entire 2012-13 season.

Rose's injury and the daily speculation about his return will most likely define this recently concluded Bulls season. After suffering a torn ACL in the 2012 playoffs, the Bulls and fans all knew the team would be without their star for much of this season. Yet even after the All-Star break came and went, even as he was medically cleared to play, even as he began participating in pregame shoot-arounds, Rose remained away from the team, in the locker room, or on the bench in street clothes for all 94 combined regular season and playoff games. The Bulls entered the playoffs, suffered a series of injuries and illnesses that depleted the roster, and Rose remained off the court.

The Bulls finished the 2012-13 season with a 45-37 record, which earned them the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. They upset the fourth-seeded Brooklyn Nets in seven games, gutting out the series despite Joakim Noah playing on one foot, Luol Deng's severe illness that required a spinal tap, Nate Robinson vomiting in a trash can on the bench while suffering flu-like symptoms, and Kirk Hinrich's calf injury. The Bulls shocked the top-seeded Miami Heat in Game One of the second round before losing the next four. But they didn't go quietly in their final game, holding a lead for much of it and losing by just three before the decimated team finally wore out.

Bulls fans are left wondering what might have been if Derrick Rose had returned in February, or March, or even last week. As with all of Tom Thibodeau's team, the Bulls played tough defense and displayed a grittiness in the face of adversity that few teams show, exemplifying Hawk Harrelson's quasi-sabermatic TWTW&mdash"The Will to Win." But the offense at times disappeared, even after Robinson was discovered to be a sometimes capable Derrick Rose impersonator.

The Good
While the Bulls bid adieu to most of their "Bench Mob" from the past couple seasons, the new bench eventually came together as a unit. Holdover Taj Gibson anchored the second unit again, while Jimmy Butler made huge strides in his second year. He first showed flashes while starting in Deng's place mid-season, and by the end of the year had worked his way into the starting five. Marco Belinelli and Nate Robinson provided scoring sparks for the Bulls, especially Robinson. A guy who looked like he might be cut when Rose returned, he and Carlos Boozer were the Bulls' leading scorers in the playoffs. The Bulls might want to keep him around next year.

Joakim Noah asserted his claim as the East's top center. Noah made his first All-Star team, was all-defensive first team and seemed to single-handedly will the Bulls to victory at times.

The Bad
The Bulls again suffered through bouts of injuries in addition to Rose. Rip Hamilton missed more than 30 games, Hinrich more than 20, Noah 16 and Deng seven. Taj Gibson and Marco Belinelli also missed time due to injuries near the end of the regular season. This meant that coach Tom Thibodeau was constantly shuffling line-ups throughout the year. While guys like Butler, Robinson and Belinelli stepped up, it also meant the Bulls often had a very short bench and those healthy enough to play logged Deng-like minutes. Jimmy Buckets logged more than 160 consecutive minutes over a three plus game stretch in the playoffs.

Without Rose in the line-up, the Bulls offense was sometimes lacking, and even their lock-down defense couldn't overcome that. As a result, debacles like the 42-point loss to the lowly Sacramento Kings, and the 40-point loss to the Miami Heat in Game 2 of their playoff series.

The Ugly
The "When Will Rose Return?" question was a constant all season long, exacerbated by Adidas' "#TheReturn" campaign, and fueled by constant rumors, declarations by Rose's family and his lack of timeline for retaking the court—even after clearing each hurdle of his rehab. Neither Rose nor the Bulls would definitively rule him out for the season, even after he missed the entire regular season. Up until the final game against the Heat, there was constant speculation that Rose might suit up and play.

When the season began, we knew there would be lots of uncertainty due to Rose's absence and new supporting cast. But we didn't expect that to carry all the way through their playoff ouster. This whole season feels like a lost year. Now it's over, and the Bulls and Rose can move on.

As we look forward to next year, there's no excuse for Rose not returning at 100 percent. There will be some changes to the roster, with Rip Hamilton unlikely to return and a number of bench players becoming free agents once again. The Bulls will likely start Rose, Deng, Noah, Boozer with Butler at shooting guard. That should be good enough to take on just about anybody. Thibs has proven able to cobble just about anybody into a passable bench. The Bulls can expect to jockey once again with Miami for best record in the East. With Rose back, will they finally have the firepower to overtake Miami? We expect to find out on the court a year from now.