CHICAGO | Welcome back, Derrick Rose. Welcome back to title contention, Bulls.
With their superstar point guard back after missing a season following knee surgery, the Bulls are once again taking aim at LeBron James and the Miami Heat for supremacy in the Eastern Conference and a shot at the NBA championship.
"That's our No. 1 goal is winning the title," Rose said. "We're not worried about anything else. We're not worried about what people say about us or what's going on on the outside. We're just worried about the Bulls and how good we get every day."
Of course, there's a good reason why the Bulls believe they can be No. 1. That's because the man who happens to wear that uniform number is back.
Without Rose, the Bulls were good enough to win 45 games and advance a round in the playoffs despite a long list of injuries and illnesses down the stretch.
Now, their superstar is healthy. The question is: Can Rose regain his MVP form? And how soon?
Rose has looked like his old explosive self in the preseason, scoring 22 points against the Detroit Pistons and following that up with 32 against Indiana, but the intensity is about to ratchet up a notch or two.
He hasn't played a meaningful game since he crumbled to the floor with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee late in the playoff-opening win over Philadelphia in 2012, an injury that helped send the top-seeded Bulls to a first-round exit. Rose will be tested right from the start, since the Tuesday season opener is in Miami against the two-time defending champions. He won't have to wait to see how he stacks up against the best in the league, and the same goes for the Bulls as a whole.
"The one thing I do like about our team is the versatility with the lineup," coach Tom Thibodeau said. "(Mike) Dunleavy (Jr.) plays three positions. He can start, come off the bench. (Kirk) Hinrich to me is a starter who comes off the bench. Taj (Gibson) is a starter who comes off the bench. That gives you pretty good flexibility."
Here are things to look for this season:
BETTER ROSE: Rose insists he's coming back better than ever. If he does, that's a scary proposition for the rest of the league. The former league MVP said he added muscle during his time off, which he thinks will in turn add range to his jumper and help cut back on the wear and tear his body absorbs. If nothing else, Rose's presence takes pressure off the rest of the team.
"He has to do a lot," Thibodeau said. "When you're a player like he is, you want to take advantage of what his strengths are. He has to share the ball, make the right decisions, I think he's done a good job of leading the team and created easy scoring opportunities for other players and made everyone a lot better."
NOAH HURTING: Getting Rose back obviously is huge for the Bulls. But it would help if Joakim Noah stayed healthy. He was limited by plantar fasciitis in his foot for the second time in three seasons, and he missed time in the preseason because of a lingering groin injury.
WIND-DENG DOWN?: With an expiring contract, Luol Deng's time in Chicago could be coming to an end. He did not get an extension in the offseason, so it looks like he will hit the open market. A two-time All-Star, Deng's been a solid contributor, averaging 16 points and 6.4 rebounds over nine seasons. He's also a favorite of Thibodeau, but with the Bulls possibly looking to make a big splash in free agency, there might not be room for him.
BUTLER'S BIGGER ROLE: After making a jump in his second season, Jimmy Butler could be poised for another big step. He's now the starting shooting guard and Rose is back. That could translate to plenty of opportunities for him. As it is, he played well last season, averaging 8.6 points mostly as a reserve, and really came on strong down the stretch. Butler made 12 starts in the playoffs and averaged 13.3 points.
DIFFERENT PAGES?: The Bulls insist Thibodeau and general manager Gar Forman are on the same page. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on them after Forman let top assistant Ron Adams go in the summer. It was an unusual move because head coaches usually set their staff, yet it was the general manager making the call in this case.