If Rose can get to 100% of his explosiveness (not necessarily 100% pain free), are the Bulls the favorite to win the title this season?
For the longest time I would have put my money on the Heat. I still am awfully tempted to do so. I watched a similar fade down the stretch of last season only to see the Heat rip through the playoffs before their inexplicable collapse against the Mavericks. I thought the Heat would come back with a better bench, hungrier to win, and would dominate this season.
Emotionally, the Heat scare the hell out of me [insert your buy a dog joke here], but objectively, I can't help but note that Chicago looks like a far tougher team this year while the Heat don't. I expected the Heat bench to rock this season. They were effectively adding Udanis Haslem, Mike Miller, and Shane Battier given that the first two had so many injury problems last seasons. They haven't given them much of anything. Their bench, as inexplicable as it seems, has somehow gotten even worse.
Say what you want about the frequency of Rip Hamilton contributions, but when he's been healthy and in rhythm, he's been a big difference maker. He's given the Bulls a flurry of 20 point games in limited minutes recently, has shown he can still bring a diverse offensive package to the table and is drilling threes left and right when given Bogans like room to shoot them.
Of course the big three for Miami still look as deadly as ever. Of course they can turn it on and become unstoppable at any point, but I thought the matchups would favor Miami more this season than last, and the reverse is true instead. The Bulls need to get healthy, but if they do, they come back considerably improved.
Chicago's bringing the same great defense with more offensive firepower and an even deeper bench to the party this season. The entire playoff rotation has been battle tested in pressure situations in big games. Even Jimmy Butler, who's barely played, has been called upon to guard star players in the closing minutes of a tight game on several occasions.
Norris Cole had a hot start but has turned into hot garbage while Mario Chalmers is simply steady. The only scary thing about a Bulls / Heat matchup to me is that LeBron plays irrationally well against Chicago. I've seen him consistently make more tough shots against the Bulls than any other team. That said, objectively that's less likely to continue [not that he won't be great, but that he plays vastly above what he can do to other teams] rather than to continue.
The Bulls have the teamwork that championships are built upon. There's no doubt that everyone on this squad has one goal. To win. There's no individual agendas. There's no whining or bristling about minutes. This team has one focus and one focus only, and it has complete buy in from every individual on the roster.
Beyond the Heat, the Bulls will face a tough opponent from the west. I don't want to break down everyone out of the west, so in brief, I think the Bulls would cruise past the Spurs and Lakers. The Thunder present a scary challenge, but I think Chicago's tougher than OKC and can bring too much defense over the series.
Chicago looks like it will go into the playoffs as the #1 or #2 seed overall. That guarantees nothing. Afterall, the #1 seed rarely wins [though without breaking it down I'd suspect it still wins more than any other seed]. However, they deserve the title of favorite right now. Their body of work has been incredible, and they've done it while playing at partial strength.
They aren't peaking as a team, but they're building momentum. It's easy to envision Chicago's best basketball coming in the following two months. It's easy to see how a team which has honed all its individual pieces can finally put them together. The Bulls are presently tied for the best record in the NBA and haven't had a chance to bring out their "A" game.
It all rides on the health of a team that's remained injured all year long, but Hamilton seems over his woes, and Rose looks like he'll overcome his over the next couple weeks. If they're finally healthy, the Bulls have considerable head room to improve over the team that's already good enough to win the #1 seed. They may or may not win, but they've earned the title of favorite.