Without Derrick Rose in the first 50 games of the season, the Chicago Bulls have managed to stay near the top of the East. At 30-20, they are in the fourth seed in the conference and just a half game behind the Indiana Pacers in the Central Division.

The point guard has missed the entire season, after tearing his ACL in last year’s playoffs. He began participating in full-contact practices last month, and is on his way to returning to the court.

With news of Rose getting closer to putting on a uniform, the Bulls have been mentioned by experts as possible title contenders. Even with the team’s best player on the verge of coming back, head coach Tom Thibodeau is insisting that Rose won’t play a game until he’s 100 percent.

“We just want to make sure he’s ready to go, but he’s right on schedule,” Thibodeau said on Sunday. “This is what we had planned all along. Just want to be smart. He’s got to continue to focus on his rehab.”

Rose underwent surgery on May 12, and his projected recovery time was set at 8-12 months. The 2013 NBA playoffs will begin on Apr.20.

“He’s putting a lot of time into basketball and (let’s) have the team concentrate on their improvement and our next opponent, and when he’s ready, he’s ready. We’re not going to say it’s going be this day or that day. That’s just not the way we’re going to do it. When he’s ready, he’ll go.”

On Sunday, Rose did shooting drills and continued to do work against a defender, even after practice had concluded.

“I like to think we’re a good practice team, but also have the understanding that no matter what we’re doing in practice it’s never going to be quite the same as a game,” said Thibodeau. “You’re striving to get it as close to a game-like intensity as you can. But you also have to understand you’re not going to get it there.”

Two years ago, Rose won the MVP and led the Bulls to the best record in the conference. Last season, Rose missed over 40 percent of the team’s games. However, Chicago still ended up with the No.1 seed, going 18-9 when Rose was out with an injury.

Adding Rose, though, might give the Bulls the best chance to challenge the Heat in the East. They may be the best defensive team in the conference, but have had trouble on offense without their top scorer.

Chicago’s offensive woes have put them at the center of a few trade rumors. There was a report last week that they might trade Carlos Boozer to the Toronto Raptors for Andrea Bargnani.

If Rose can return at full strength, though, the Bulls may have enough on their roster to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in 15 years.