[Derrick Rose back. Alex Sonty back? Only a couple game previews left if you want to sign up. -yfbb]
Derrick Rose is expected to be on a low minutes limit on Wednesday evening in Orlando, as he returns from a late-February surgery to repair torn meniscus in his right knee to aid the Bulls push for playoff positioning.
The Bulls would be a three-seed in the Eastern Conference, were the NBA playoffs to begin today. But there are still regular season games to play; and the Bulls' positioning is insecure.
The gap between the top-five teams in the East and the rest of the conference is wide. Only five games remain in the 2014-15 NBA schedule for the 46-31 Bulls, who have a fragile one-game lead over the four-seed Raptors. The difference between the two seeds is currently the difference between a first-round matchup against the struggling sub-.500 Bucks or the potentially-upsetting 44-33 Wizards.
Toronto is currently slight favorites to win their road matchup over the 33-44 Hornets on Wednesday evening, making the Bulls' need to execute a win in on the road over a 24-53 Magic team necessary to create security in the three-seed and avoid facing a top-five East team in the first round.
Orlando has won two straight, but that is after losing 10 of their previous 11. Since winning four of his first six games as interim head coach, James Borrego, who replaced a fired Jacque Vaughn in early February, has lost 14 of 19 at the helm. There is a case to be made that the Magic organization is disinterested in winning any of their remaining five games on the regular season schedule, seeing more value in boosting their share in the 2015 NBA Draft Lottery. A must-win-should-win can be an existential win for the Bulls, but it would be foolish to forecast a disinterested Magic squad on the court and along the sidelines.
Borrego is coaching for a job next year. Low-paid upcoming free agent Tobias Harris is looking to cash in on his career-best 2014-15 campaign this summer. Elfrid Payton has a financial interest in securing a spot on the 2015 All-Rookie First Team and the 2014 second-overall pick Victor Oladipo has to maintain his role at the core of this developing squad.
Nikola Vucevic is especially interested in being one of the higher-paid bigs in the game. He's close to 20 PPG, shooting an NBA-ninth-best .528 FG%, and his 19.5 TRB% ranks seventh in the league, logging a high volume of 34.3 MPG.
Payton is averaging 14.0 points, 8.9 assists, and 2.1 steals in his last 15 games, playing 37.3 minutes as the everyday starter, shooting 46.8%. He had ten points and nine rebounds in only 24 minutes in the Bulls' one-point victory over the Magic on February 8.
The significance of Vucevic and Payton is obvious: the Bulls can be exploited by bigs and point guards.
Aaron Brooks has been a nightly liability for the Bulls on the defensive end, and there is not much Rose can do to shrink this deficiency in his first game back on tender knees. Worse, the Bulls' need for Pau Gasol's scoring keeps his defensive liability on the court, making it very difficult for the Bulls to prevent Vucevic, Oladipo, Payton, and Harris from making tonight's push for playoff positioning a competitive affair.
What Rose can do over the span of 20-or-so minutes is intriguing for his recovery. One can't overlook that before his injury, Rose was shooting career-lows across the board and also caring the ball at his worst rates. His .407 FG% has been as bad as his sub-.500 TS% over the extremely high volume of his 31.5 USG%. His 5.0 APG and 14.8% TOV% are also career-lows.
The Bulls have had a very swingy season and have barely treaded water since Rose left the floor, going 10-10 in 20 games he missed. The Bulls' 109 points per 100 possessions in the 57 games before Rose's injury leave began sunk to 106.7 in the games since, while the defense has produced at nearly the same levels. Nine of those 20 games were on the road, where the Bulls lost seven, diminishing their great 19-10 record away from the United Center to 21-17.
Whether the Bulls were regressing to the mean on the road or need Rose's role to relieve pressure and open up opportunities for his teammates or mystically need their star fighting with them to raise the pace of the game to a point where they are optimally engaged, Rose's return should make for a better Bulls team than fans have had to endure over the last six weeks.
Kirk Hinrich (knee) has missed the last two games and is questionable, so there's more room for optimism.
Stats via Basketball-Reference.com.
* - "Bigs" categorized as those listed on Basketball-Reference.com as a center or forward-center who qualify for the scoring leaderboard.