How good can Bulls be until Derrick Rose returns?

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For the past two regular seasons, the Chicago Bulls were the best team in the East. They were the top seed.

But they played much of the season in their top gear — especially on defense — which overwhelmed opponents but left questions about whether they could step it up in the playoffs. We’ll never know what might have happened if they faced the Heat in the conference finals last year because Derrick Rose’s ACL gave out on a jump stop.

In the off-season the Bulls started making moves to suggest they were looking at adding a star in two summers rather than just trying to win with what they have. The bench got shorter — C.J. Watson turned into Kirk Hinrich, Kyle Korver became Marco Belinelli, Omer Asik became Nazr Mohammed, Ronnie Brewer downgraded into Vladimir Radmanovic.

Now they have to start the season with that bench and without Rose — and likely go until around the All Star break in late February to get him back. So how good are the Bulls next season?

Taj Gibson told ESPNChicago.com he thinks the Bulls will still be competitive (hat tip to SLAM).

“We still did good even when we didn’t have Derrick (last season),” said Gibson, who threw out a ceremonial first pitch before the Chicago White Sox’s game on Monday. “We beat the Heat without Derrick.

“Our mindset hasn’t changed. It’s about staying focused and taking one game at a time. We understand it’s going to be up and down at the beginning of the season. We can’t look forward to the end. We got to look forward to one game at a time and playing to our strengths and just listening to coach (Tom Thibodeau). I know it’s going to be a long season, but I’m really optimistic about what’s going to happen.”

That’s a good attitude. The Bulls were 18-9 in the regular season without Rose and were able to continue to overwhelm opponents, but when it got to the Sixers in the first round of the playoffs the Bulls went 0-4 on games he did not play.

Come the regular season the Bulls are not going to keep winning two-thirds of their games without Rose. But with their defense and athletes they are not a below .500 team either. The issue is that when Rose comes back he will have to round into shape for a while. The Bulls could end up being that six or seven seed that nobody wants to face because they are getting healthy.

But they are not the best team in the East any more. Not sure that they ever really were.