The difference between the Bulls being one of the top few teams in the league and being a team sitting around 10th will be in how well Derrick Rose comes back from his torn ACL. Typically, expectations are fairly limited with what a guy can do day one, but Rose presents an interesting case in terms of expectations.
Framing the overall recovery
The torn ACL used to be a career ender, and if you've watched sports intently enough to follow sports injuries for more than a decade, then you probably still have some significant fear in your mind about just how well Rose will recovery from the ACL surgery at all.
I remember the hushed tones that would follow any player with an ACL tear and much like Greg Oden's potential, that fear hung around the words ACL is so great that it significantly outstrips what the present day reality is.
With a player as young as Derrick, the expectation should be that he has a complete and full recovery. Rose is somewhat unique in that we haven't seen an NBA player of his caliber tear an ACL since the advances in the repair methodology.
In that sense, the quality of Rose's overall return still has more fear wrapped around it than might be warranted, but I've seen ACL tears ruin enough careers that I'll still carry that fear around with me until I see him back at 100% even if it isn't completely rational.
The case for ass whupping Rose day one
The biggest difference between Derrick Rose and most players returning from an ACL these days is the total time off. Ignore the stir Rose caused by sitting out the end of last season with the injury, and what we have is a player who will have had 511 days (1 year, 4 months, 23 days) between his surgery date and his first preseason game.
He'll have been running full contact practices with the team for over three months prior to last season ending which shows his physical recovery was nearing completion nearly nine months prior to the tip off of that first game. He had a chance to go hard in practice for several months before entering a normal off-season stage.
Derrick's gotten to focus the entire last year and a half on his body physically. His recovery obvious took up a good chunk of that time, but part of recovery is strengthening the body. Rose won't be worn down from another year of a tough physical grind and punishment with off-season to recuperate, but rather exits a very pro-longed strengthening period.
He'll be entering that first game after spending around nine months adding strength and skills (beyond the basic physical recovery).
The case for Rose taking awhile
It's the speed of the game. It can't be mimicked. It can't be duplicated. It can't be adjusted to quickly. That seems to be the primary reason people think Rose will take awhile to get up to snuff.
After being out of the game for a full season, Derrick will take time to get his timing down, because no matter how hard you work, you simply can't simulate what it feels like to do the same type of moves/shots in a live game situation.
My best guess
When trying to write the case for Rose taking awhile, it just feels so flimsy. The whole NBA will becoming of of a five month break. Everyone will need to get their timing back. That's what training camp and preseason are for. Sure the game aren't as intense, but the whole league will need to readjust to that intensity after a prolonged break.
Do you think Tom Thibodeau will be running camps at 1/4 pace? The Bulls will go hard, likely harder than most teams, and Derrick will go hard with them.
Unless Derrick has a huge mental block, the length of his physical recovery combined with a month of training camp and a month of preseason games should be more than enough time to get over the "I'm scared to go hard" thought process and his body was likely physically ready to go hard seven plus months ago.
If Rose isn't playing at an elite level within a few weeks then it tells me one of a few things:
1: Rose didn't work hard in his rehab. There's no reason he shouldn't be as physically ready as he'll ever be if he did.
2: The injury will have permanently rendered him less than he was.
3: Rose has a huge mental thing going in with his recovery that he's still struggling with.
4: It's simply an unfortunately timed cold stretch any player can have that we make too much of because of Rose's circumstances.
Reasons one and two just strike me as unlikely. I think Derrick likely worked very hard in his rehab and modern ACL recovery is such that a permanently lessening of his ability doesn't seem all that likely to me.
The mental gap is possible, but returning at the start of a season makes it so much more likely that this isn't an issue because he gets to slowly step into everything.
Maybe Rose will just show some rust or hit a cold patch, but he's the type of player who plays through those things by attacking the basket. If his shot is just a bit off then we should be able to see that and differentiate between whether Rose is playing poorly due to a physical limitation or just having a rough stretch.
In the end, my guess is that we see Derrick Rose at near full ability right out the gates. Perhaps it's just blind optimism, but I think he'll be ready to put the league on notice in that first game and remind the Heat that the Bulls will be a force to be reckoned with again.