There used to be somebody fast and fierce enough to make LeBron James look over his shoulder. His name was Derrick Rose.
The Chicago Bulls point guard, and famed Chicago native, topped James for MVP voting in the 2010-11 season, becoming the youngest player to ever win the award as the then-22-year-old Rose led his team to a league-best 62-20 record. LeBron and the Miami Heat, however, ended up besting the inexperienced Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals that year, four games to one. But a message was sent: This was going to be one of the best rivalries in the league for some time.
Fate, of course, had other ideas. Since Rose tore his ACL on the first day of the 2012 NBA playoffs, he’s played just ten regular season games over two seasons. The Indiana Pacers, not the Bulls, became Miami’s biggest hurdle in the East as they returned to the Finals for three straight years.
Now LeBron’s back in Cleveland, though, and Rose is back on the court. The time Rose has missed means he can’t operate near The King’s level anymore — not yet, anyway. But he is an integral part of a strong roster, featuring a much-improved Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and newcomer veteran Pau Gasol. Behind the leadership of ever-intense coach Tom Thibodeau, Chicago promises to be LeBron’s harshest Eastern enemy yet again.
With the talent James has around him, it’s hard to believe anyone will be able to beat the Cavs in the long run. Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion and Co. make for a far stronger, deeper cast than the game’s best player has ever had to work with — even if they’re not quite as experienced as his Heat running mates. In his time away from home, LeBron was able to rearrange the NBA talent market to make his birthplace a magnet for winners. James’ offseason team-building campaign was quite the coup.
If anyone in their conference can take down Cleveland before they find their rhythm and become a juggernaut, though, it’s the indomitable Chicago Bulls. Make sure to catch tonight’s game for a preview of the East’s new power structure.
— John Wilmes