Originally written on Taking Bad Schotz  |  Last updated 1/30/13

The Chicago Bulls entered this season with a dark cloud hanging over their heads.  Derrick Rose was unavailable until further notice. Crucial role players, including C.J. Watson, John Lucas III, Ronnie Brewer, and Omer Asik had all left to pursue more money, and more playing time, elsewhere.  The year had already been a dry one in Chicago. The Cubs finished with fewer than 70 wins AGAIN, The White Sox missed the playoffs, and Blackhawks fans were left in a bitter rage after losing a string of first-round overtime wins against the Phoenix Coyotes. Nobody, in Chicago or around the country, thought the Bulls were going anywhere. The conventional wisdom was that the Bulls had to hang around on the edge of playoff contention until Rose came back, and then find a foot-hold in a tough Eastern Conference. Yet here we are, half way through the season, with the Bulls flying high at 27-17, good for third place in the Eastern Conference. And nobody is talking about it. The Bulls, under the steady hand of Tom Thibodeau, continue to get it done on the most important end of the floor: defense. Chicago is ranked 3rd in the league in opponents points per game with 91.2 and continue to provide a consistent effort on the glass, ranking 6th in rebounding per game with 44. Seems like a pretty good way to combat the loss of one of the best scorers in the game doesn’t it? The most impressive part of this Bulls team is the contributions they’ve gotten from overachievers such as Nate Robinson (21.3 mins/42.8%/38.5%/10.9pts), Marco Bellinelli (24.7mins/39.6%/38.8%/9.5pts), and most recently, Jimmy Butler ( 20.5 mins/48.7%/25%/6.4pts).  All three of those guys come of the bench, and each has a specialized role to play. Robinson, for instance, is counted on for offense explosions when scoring gets anemic, bringing energy and a higher pace that can overwhelm some second units. Bellinelli also brings the energy, even if he does look perpetually surprised, and isn’t afraid to take his shots or drive into the lane. He’s effective creating his own shot, and the Bulls can rely on him to play a lot of minutes while Rip Hamilton is at the nursing home resting his legs. That’s a HUGE plus. Jimmy Butler, who has been seldom used since being picked 30th overall in the 2011 draft, has gotten a ton of minutes the past week while All-Star Forward Luol Deng missed several games due to a hamstring injury. With Deng out, Thibodeau leaned on Butler to play ridiculous minutes, sometimes more than 40 a game, and Butler rose above anyone’s expectations. He transformed into a viable back up for Deng, who has carried the team in tandem with Joakim Noah, which means that Deng will be able to reduce his league-leading 39.8 minutes a game and ensure that he is fresher for the playoffs. via espn.go.com This highlights the Bulls’ greatest strength: depth in key positions.  The Bulls are stocked with two effective ball handlers in Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson who are diverse enough to play matchup basketball. They have a solid shooting guard situation for the first time since Ben Gordon chased a big contract out of town, and they trot out an All-Star and a serviceable back up at small forward. At power forward they have a scorer in Carlos Boozer who has actually been earning his pay recently, even earning Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Behind him is Taj Gibson, the best-kept starter-caliber secret in the league. Finally, All-Star Joakim Noah, has put up ridiculous numbers (38.5 mins/45.7%/11.1 reb/4 asts/2.1 blks/12.1 pts PER GAME) in the absence of Derrick Rose is locking down the center position at the United Center. Behind him is rarely used reserves Nazr Mohammed and even Vladimir Radmanovic. The luxury of Taj Gibson is that he can be played at the center position if the Bulls need to play small. Again, these Bulls are built to match up with almost anyone. Still, nobody is talking about it. via cleveland.com The best part is that Derrick Rose hasn’t played a minute. Oh yeah, Derrick Rose. That guy. Forget about him? Chicago fans sure haven’t. Bulls coverage in Chicago stops when Derrick Rose PRACTICES.  It’s almost like a kid staying up for Santa Claus and Derrick Rose is Santa Claus in Chicago. He wears a red suit, he’s beloved by millions, and he brings gifts to children, (or in this case, adults in Chicago) and his return is the most wonderful time of the year.  Derrick Rose is one of the best five players in the world, and this team is already the seventh best team in the league? How scared are the coaches in the NBA at the fact that Santa Claus is coming to town in May? The Bulls, as they stand, are an elite defensive team who is about to get a shot in the arm by one of the most gifted athletes in the past decade.  Derrick Rose can take the ball to the hoop himself, he can slash and kick, he can pull up in the middle of the lane and bury the ball in the bottom of the net, he can distribute, and he can toe the three point line and shoot the lights out. He is the most terrifying presence on the floor in basketball outside of LeBron James. Just ask MVP voters from two years ago. But, nobody is talking about it. So where does this team go? I’ll put it out there. The NBA Finals.  The Chicago Bulls will win the Eastern Conference over the Miami Heat because they have all the things that Miami lacks. Depth and a dominant big man. Joakim Noah will, in my opinion, destroy whoever Miami trots out there to try to combat him, Derrick Rose will destroy Mario Chalmers, and Luol Deng will be good ‘ol Luol and hit his shots. The Heat are going to have to get transcendent performances from LeBron and Dwayne Wade in order to compete these guys. Call me crazy, but I think Derrick takes this team from very good to great.  The 2012 playoffs were a fluke without Derrick Rose. His absence allowed the Celtics to make it to the Conference Finals, and I think these Bulls are a better version of that Celtics team that pushed Miami to seven games. Obviously, it all depends on how Derrick performs when he comes back, and boy, is it going to be fun. -Fenton

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