The Chicago Bulls have won four of their last five games, a stretch that included a thoroughly satisfying win over the Miami Heat, and are currently on-pace for 49 wins. It's remarkable, really, a testament to Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes and unquenchable thirst for victory. The Bulls are still doing the things we've become accustomed to over the last 2.5 years under Thibodeau -- still defending the pick-and-roll as well as any team, still crashing the boards, still using two very good passing big men to ignite an offense devoid of shot-creators.
But it only takes one visit to the United Center to tell something is missing. The buzz is gone -- from the stadium, from the city -- and it can be traced directly the Bulls' famed starting lineup introductions. When the lights go down and lasers come out, Chicago has always been ready to explode for the last player announced. After 13 seasons with Michael Jordan, it's become ingrained in the fabric of the United Center.
But not this year. "From Duke, Carlos Boozer!" just isn't going to get anyone excited.
The Bulls miss Derrick Rose. So does Chicago, so does the NBA, so do millions of sports fans all over the globe. It isn't a stretch to consider Rose one of the world's most popular athletes. His jersey can still be spotted everywhere; street art dedicated to the recovery of Chicago's homegrown superstar is scribbled on various street corners throughout many of the city's diverse neighborhoods. Everyone wants to know: when is Derrick Rose coming back?
The silence from the organization and Rose himself has been deafening. Rose hasn't spoken to local reporters since media day. The daily questions asked of Thibodeau and his teammates about Rose's recovery receive typically vague and cliche-laden responses. Derrick is working hard. We can't just sit around and wait for Derrick to save us. Derrick still has a long way to go.
Know one thing: Chicago is getting antsy. Need evidence? When Rose forgot his backpack in the locker room in Orlando last week and made a brief appearance to pick it up, it became top news for the Chicago Tribune. It also evolved into the Peekaboo Derrick Rose meme, which quickly went viral. Everyone wants Rose to be right around the corner. Truth is, even as he's now been cleared for whatever 'predictable contact' is, there's no telling when he'll return for a full scale practice, let alone game action.
Meanwhile, Iman Shumpert and Ricky Rubio are cluing us in to what we might be able to expect with Rose. Shumpert tore his ACL on the same day as Rose and was cleared for full contact practice on Tuesday. He should return to the court for the Knicks sometime this month. Rubio tore his ACL on March 9 -- 51 days before Rose and Shumpert. Rubio has played six games this season, but the Timberwolves have been hyper-cautious with his return.
When Minnesota plays the Thunder on Wednesday, it will be the first time Rubio has played back-to-back games. Up to this point, the Wolves have treated Rubio with kid gloves. He's averaged just 18 minutes a game since coming back on December 15, and has had to deal with groin and back injuries. It makes sense: when part of your body isn't right, it's natural to overcompensate. That's exactly why Rose was so dinged up all of last season before a million little injuries eventually gave way to a big one in Chicago's first playoff game.
Rubio's numbers aren't pretty. He still wears a big smile and has a penchant for highlight reel passes, but the numbers tell the whole story. Rubio's PER is just 10.27. His scoring average (4.2) is down more than six points from his rookie season. It's because he can't get to the rim. As a rookie, Rubio took 2.5 shots per game at the rim, according to HoopData. He's averaging just 0.8 attempts at the rim this season. Rubio also still hasn't hit a three-pointer this season, going 0-for-6 since his return to the court.
If Rose were to come back on the exact same timetable as Rubio, his first game would be Feb. 4 in Indiana against the Pacers. You know, that's exactly how someone else returned to the Bulls. But for all of the symmetry, that target date still appears too early. From the beginning, no one has expected Rose to be back on the court before the All-Star Game. Nothing that's happened since should have changed anyone's mind.
For now, the Bulls will continue to grind their way through games. They'll have to win with defense and rebounding, with an offense that relies heavily on ball movement and second chance points. The Bulls don't have the superstar every team needs to bail them out in crunch time possessions, but they know he's on his way. What to expect this season from Rose is anyone's guess, but you can be sure they'll be plenty of interested parties.