Derrick Rose's reputation and his game are two separate entities. They are not interconnected forever -- which is an important distinction to make as the new NBA season rolls around.
Rose's reputation took a major hit last season when, after being medically cleared to play by team doctors with several months left in the season, he decided not play a single second. He was chastised by frustrated fans for not finding a way to be on the floor to help out his ailing team during the playoffs. In the midst of all the consternation surrounding his decision it's important to recognize a fact that never wavered despite the swirling perception around the MVP: While Rose's pristine public image took a hit, his game remained the same.
As the NBA gets set to enter a new season, one filled with championship expectations for Rose and his Bulls teammates, it feels as if a portion of fans simply forgot how great Rose was when healthy. Obviously, there's no guarantee that Rose will return at the same level after having surgery on his knee over 16 months ago, but many within the Bulls organization are convinced the 24-year-old Rose has a chance to return and be the same player -- if not better.
"He's put a ton of time into his shooting because basically that's all he could do along with his rehab stuff," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said during the Las Vegas Summer League in July. "Each year that Derrick's been in the league he's added to his game. So this is a continuation of all the things he's done in the past. Every summer he's concentrated on something and we may see more post-ups and things of that nature, more catch-and-shoot for him also."
Up to this point in his career Rose's game has been largely based on speed and quickness, the ability to change directions in the blink of an eye, but even if he doesn't come back with exactly the same burst, his game would be even more rounded with the addition of a more consistent jump shot.
The re-emergence of Rose, combined with the remaining core of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, Jimmy Butler, Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and free agent Mike Dunleavy, Jr. is formidable. If that group can stay healthy the Bulls should be right in the middle of the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Do the Bulls have a chance to knock off the Miami Heat in a seven-game series? Absolutely. Do I believe they will if LeBron James stays healthy? No.
Same goes for the rest of the teams in the Eastern Conference. Indiana made some nice moves this summer and Paul George is getting better every season. Danny Granger will be back and looking to prove all of his doubters wrong as he heads into a contract year. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce's presence can only help a Brooklyn Nets team that managed to lose a seven-game series to a Bulls team that played without Rose, and Deng and Hinrich for a majority of the series. But in the end, if James stays healthy, all three of these teams are likely playing for second place behind the Heat.
It's within this battle for second that one of the most interesting storylines of the season will develop. After taking the Heat to a Game 7 in last year's Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers believe that they are the closest to knocking the Heat off their throne. Roy Hibbert has turned himself into an All-Star center and Luis Scola's presence on Indiana's roster will make them even stronger.
Some believe that Brooklyn, with Garnett and Pierce joining All-Stars Deron Williams and Brook Lopez, can push the Heat more than any other team in the East. Garnett and Pierce figure to give new coach Jason Kidd the type of passion that was sorely lacking at times last year in Brooklyn.
Meanwhile, given their salary cap restrictions, the Bulls didn't make many splashy moves. Butler heads into the season as the starting two guard, but will he be able to maintain the success he had towards the end of last season? Dunleavy is a solid addition, but he doesn't have anywhere close to the star power of Garnett or Pierce. Still, under Thibodeau the Bulls have developed the type of defensive-minded system that other teams salivate over. Noah, Deng and Butler have proven to be three of the most dependable defenders in the league and play hard every night.
The Bulls may not have added a major piece in the summer, but they are getting back their most important piece of all -- Rose.
Amid all the hoopla and anger surrounding Rose's decision not to play, many seem to have forgotten that he won the MVP award just a couple seasons ago. In that MVP season of 2010-11, Rose averaged 25 points, 7.7 assists and 4.1 rebounds and missed just one game. In his injury-riddled 2011-12 season he still averaged 21.8 points, 7.9 assists and 3.4 rebounds in 39 games.
George, Granger, Pierce and Garnett are all great players -- but none of them have the type of talent Rose has. If Rose can prove he is close to the same player he used to be, he will lead his team to that showdown against the Heat everyone has been wanting to see again.
The Bulls might be playing for second place this season but, with Rose back in the fold, at least get the order straight when it comes to ranking teams behind the Miami Heat. It's the Bulls -- led by Rose -- and then everybody else.