It hasn’t been a smooth season for the Bulls. No season has gone quite as planned since Derrick Rose became the NBA’s youngest MVP in 2010-11.

Ever since that magical season, Rose has let Chicago down. Not intentionally, of course. Not even at the fault of his own skills on the court. It’s simply been bad luck. Knee injury after knee injury has prevented Rose from competing, and thus, the Bulls from contending.

Rose in street clothes has been a common sight over the past three seasons
Rose in street clothes has been a common sight over the past three seasons

This season was going to be different. D-Rose was back (again) as was Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler was expected to (and has) flourished into an an All-Star, and former champion Pau Gasol was the headline addition to put the Bulls over the top.

Injuries have nagged the Bulls’ core all season. But the most serious one was yet another knee injury to Rose — who has built a reputation of taking his sweet time to return from his last two knee surgeries. The idea of that strategy has been to prevent re-injury, which clearly hasn’t worked so far for the explosive guard.

The third time around, Rose took a more aggressive approach. Last playing on February 23, Rose was then given a six week timetable to recover from surgery and get back on the hardwood. For the first time, D-Rose will meet that timetable when he returns Wednesday night in Orlando (two days before six full weeks will have passed). Rose figures to go about 20 minutes against the Magic, and then, in an even bigger test, try and play 20 minutes on Thursday night in Miami (on the second leg of a back-to-back).

If Rose — who has averaged 18.4 points, 5.0 assists and 3.1 boards in 31 minutes of action through his first 46 games — can past the test and prove his health to the coaching staff during Chicago’s final five games, then the Bulls could end up right where they wanted to be after all. Heading into the postseason with the health of their “Core Four.”

As you might expect, Chicago has been a better team with their point guard on the floor this season — 29-17 with Rose and 17-14 without him. But the Bulls don’t just need Rose in the lineup, they need an efficient Rose if they want to experience success in the playoffs.

Rose is going to have to return to full strength if the Bulls are going to make a playoff run
Rose is going to have to return to full strength if the Bulls are going to make a playoff run

If Chicago is able keep their grasp on the three-seed in the Eastern Conference, they likely figure to land a matchup with Milwaukee in the first-round. The Bucks currently sit under .500, and are failing to play even close to the playoff level that they once were before trading Brandon Knight to Phoenix. It’s safe to say that the Bulls could handle the Bucks in a seven-game series, even without Rose at full strength.

But the Cavs (assuming they win in the first-round) would be up next for the Bulls, and if they even want to stand a chance in that series, Rose would have to be close to elite. It might not be the in Eastern Conference Finals like we anticipated at season’s start — the surprise of the Hawks eliminated that option — but it’s now or never for the Bulls.

It hasn’t been an ideal road, but with their three complimentary stars at full strength, and their featured star making his return just in the nick of time, the Bulls will have the team they’ve wanted all season long together at the most important time of the year. No excuses at this point. The Bulls ultimate success now lies squarely on their own shoulders.

Follow me on Twitter @julianedlow