With the Central Division assured of being one of the most competitive in the NBA, the Chicago Bulls have to be thrilled that Derrick Rose is finally healthy again.
Over in the Atlantic, Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks are hoping a full season under team president Phil Jackson can help them return to the playoffs.
The Bulls and Knicks kick off seasons of heightened expectations when they meet at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
Rose missed 2012-13 recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, only to sit out the final 71 games last season after tearing his right meniscus. Without their star player for most of the season, the Bulls (48-34) still tied for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference and made the playoffs before a first-round loss to Washington.
“The possibilities are endless,” center Joakim Noah said. “I think the sky’s the limit, especially when you bring a guy like Derrick back — not only what he means as a talent, but what he means to the city.”
Even with the 2011 league MVP back at full strength — Rose totaled 57 points in the last two preseason games — the Bulls face a tough task in a division that features Indiana and a potential powerhouse Cleveland club led by LeBron James and Kevin Love.
“I’m not concerned at all,” Rose said. “As long as everybody’s focused and on the same page, that’s all you can ask of your team.”
In addition to Rose’s return, the Bulls brought in some pieces to give coach Tom Thibodeau some depth — the biggest being free-agent center Pau Gasol, whose skills have diminished but at age 34 could still bring plenty to the table. Planting the veteran in the middle could free up the energetic Noah to cause havoc on defense.
Chicago also picked up an outside shooting threat by drafting Doug McDermott, who led the nation with 26.7 points per game for Creighton last season.
The Bulls made a hard push in the offseason to bring in Anthony, but the former league scoring champion opted to return to the Knicks with a five-year, $124 million contract.
The deal was a significant one early on for Jackson, who was hired in March. The new president also brought in recently retired player Derek Fisher as coach to institute the triangle offense that helped Jackson win 11 titles as an NBA coach.
The changes have quickly altered the mood around the Garden after the Knicks (37-45) failed to reach the postseason despite playing in the NBA’s weakest division. Rumors of discord in the locker room under former coach Mike Woodson also surfaced.
“I think any time you have a new coach, a new energy comes along with that. You can just walk around the building and feel that energy,” said Anthony, who missed the playoffs for the first time in his 11 seasons.
“You can just see everybody is rejuvenated again. Everybody wants to win, everybody wants to do what’s right to help this team be successful. So at the end of the day, I believe that we’ll be there at the end.”
New York’s other big offseason move was trading center Tyson Chandler and point guard Raymond Felton to Dallas for point guard Jose Calderon, who will run the triangle and may be able to light a fire under forward Andrea Bargnani after the two played well together and formed a friendship during their time in Toronto.
Another potential piece to the triangle puzzle is Amare Stoudemire, though the veteran forward’s scoring average has dropped in each of the last three seasons while he’s dealt with significant injury problems. He averaged a career-low 11.9 points in 2013-14.
Still, the Knicks do not have any insurmountable hurdles to leap in the Atlantic. Reigning division champion Toronto and Brooklyn should be competitive but not unbeatable, while Boston and Philadelphia are rebuilding.
The Knicks certainly showed they can compete by winning 16 of their final 21 games last season in an ultimately futile playoff push.
“The pain, what I endured last year and we felt as a team, we don’t want to go back down that lane no more,” Anthony said. “We don’t want to feel that pain.”