- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 21, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) - Derrick Rose is back, and the Chicago Bulls are relevant again.

They hope they stay that way this time.

The Bulls believe they are poised to contend in the Eastern Conference with their superstar point guard back again and a deeper roster surrounding him.

“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.”

Rose’s long-awaited comeback from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee got cut short when he tore the meniscus in his right knee early last season, derailing the Bulls’ plans to contend.

But he is back - again - and Chicago has a few more weapons.

The Bulls signed Pau Gasol after they failed to reel in Carmelo Anthony. They added Nikola Mirotic from Europe, and Doug McDermott, giving them some sorely needed outside shooting.

More than anything, they set their sights on the Eastern Conference championship after getting knocked out by Washington in the first round of the playoffs last season. They believe they are ready to take on Cleveland, even if the Cavaliers lured LeBron James back from Miami and added Kevin Love for good measure.

They won’t have to wait long to see how they stack up, either.

The Bulls’ first home game is against Cleveland on Oct. 31, two nights after the season opener against the Knicks in New York.

Here are some things to look for this season:

ROSE’S HEALTH: For all the optimism surrounding the Bulls, their most important player remains their biggest question mark. Rose has played in just 49 regular-season games over three years. The 2011 MVP sat out the 2012-13 season recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee and saw the plug get pulled on his long awaited comeback last year. A torn meniscus in his right knee limited him to 10 games. That is why the Bulls were so gung-ho about him playing with the U.S. national team in the World Cup of Basketball in the offseason. He knocked off some rust and stayed healthy.

THE GASOL EFFECT: While the Bulls did not land Anthony, Gasol was not a bad Plan B. NBA champion San Antonio and Oklahoma City among others were interested, but he chose Chicago. Age is a concern at 34, but Gasol remains one of the league’s most skilled big men. He won two championships with Kobe Bryant and the Lakers and is a four-time All-Star with Los Angeles and Memphis. Gasol, who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds in 60 games last season, adds some much-needed scoring punch to the frontcourt. He also gives the Bulls another big man who can pass and defend the rim, along with Noah.

ROOKIE TIME: Coach Tom Thibodeau has hesitated to play rookies in the past. Then again, none were as highly touted as McDermott and Mirotic, the former Real Madrid star. Both are known for their shooting, an area in which Chicago struggled last season. The Bulls ranked last in field goal percentage (43.2 percent) and were among the worst in 3-point accuracy at just under 35 percent. McDermott, taken with the 11th pick by Denver and immediately dealt to Chicago, averaged a nation-leading 26.7 points for Creighton last season.

“(He’s) hard-working, smart, tough,” Thibodeau said. “He has all the characteristics that we like.”

He looks like a lock for the rotation. The question is whether he comes off the bench or replaces Mike Dunleavy Jr. in the lineup. That might depend on Thibodeau’s desire to avoid having two rookies on the second team, assuming Mirotic earns a rotation spot. The 23-year-old Mirotic, a stretch power forward whose rights were acquired in a 2011 draft-night deal with Minnesota, averaged 12.4 points and shot 46 percent from 3-point range last season with Real Madrid.

NOAH’S KNEE: While Rose’s knees are the biggest concerns, the Bulls were keeping an eye on Noah. The NBA’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year was limited in the preseason following surgery on his left knee.

BOOSTING STOCK: In recent years, lower-tier free agents such as Nate Robinson and D.J. Augustin flourished under Thibodeau. Could Aaron Brooks do the same as a reserve in the backcourt? The six-year veteran averaged 9 points with Houston and Denver last season.

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