Give and Go: Derrick Rose’s return
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: assessing Derrick Rose’s refusal to officially rule out the possibility of a return for the Bulls during the playoffs.
1. Should Derrick Rose return this postseason?
Ben Golliver: The answer to this question hasn’t changed since he returned to practice in a limited capacity months ago: If Rose wants to play and feels comfortable playing, he should play. If not, he shouldn’t return. The increasing spotlight and criticism that comes with life during the playoffs shouldn’t affect the logic behind this decision. It’s either the right time to make a return or it’s not. The day-to-day circumstances of the last week — Chicago’s outlasting Brooklyn in the first round and taking Game 1 from Miami in the second round — shouldn’t cut in front of the following key questions. Does Rose feel physically ready to perform under the massive pressure and against a very talented, tested and athletic opponent? Does he feel mentally ready to trust his knee in full-speed game conditions?
One thing I’ve wondered over the last few weeks: Does Chicago’s success — and the fearless, gutsy way that it’s found that success — make life easier or more difficult for Rose? His competitive juices are surely flowing more and more as the stakes raise. But it’s easy to imagine Rose’s feeling like he desperately wants to be a part of the Bulls’ run while also having second thoughts about whether parachuting in and transforming the team with his presence is necessarily the right thing to do.
The ideal situation for a return would have been a soft launch at the end of the regular season so that Rose could get up to speed, get into game shape, get comfortable with his new teammates and get acclimated to life in the pressure cooker. With that opportunity now gone and the very real possibility that Chicago’s season is over in less than two weeks, there’s every reason to continue erring on the side of caution. In other words, if Rose is waffling or even mostly ready for a return, I would be against it. Only if he was fully healthy, cleared in every possible way and insisting upon playing would I let him on the court.
Rob Mahoney: That Rose has been reportedly cleared to play from a physical standpoint since March seems to indicate that he’s just not mentally ready to trust his surgically repaired knee at full speed just yet, which is a call that Rose — and only Rose — can make. The Bulls have no right to compel him and fans have no reason to shame him.
With that understood, these playoffs would make for the worst possible time for an unsure athlete to begin relying on a shaky knee. Rose dominates the ball and the defense’s attention whenever he’s on the court, and that’s unlikely to change whenever he does return. The underlying expectation would be for Rose to drive hard and fall into rhythm quickly, all while operating against one of the best defensive teams in the league. It’s one thing to work into game shape against weary or limited end-of-season competition, but another entirely to return against a Heat defense designed to make life hell for ball handlers. Rose would be trapped on every pick-and-roll but still expected to somehow thrive despite that coverage and his limited range of off-ball skills. All of that makes for rather brutal comeback conditions.
2. Would a healthy Rose make the Bulls legitimate title contenders?
Ben Golliver: Without Rose, here’s how I rank the championship chances of the remaining eight teams, in order: Miami, San Antonio, Memphis, New York, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Chicago and Golden State. With a fully healthy Rose, I would bump the Bulls up to No. 4, ahead of the Knicks, Thunder and Pacers but still trailing the Heat, Spurs and Grizzlies. Would that make them legit? Yes, or at least fringe-legit.
The more important and more pertinent question is whether a “healthy Rose” is possible at this point in the season. It’s unrealistic to expect him to be capable of achieving max production out of the gate after a year away. I know we as a basketball world have an attention span measured in seconds rather than months, but 2011 Rose was out of this world. That player isn’t going to just drop out of the sky to face LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and company. It’s definitely possible that we could see that player as soon as opening night next season — after a summer of work and a full training camp to recalibrate — but it’s an unreasonable and unhelpful hypothetical in the short term.
Rob Mahoney: I agree that a “healthy Rose” makes for an incredible suspension of logic at this point, as that option is not even remotely in play. If Rose were to come back, it would be in diminished form. His conditioning would be gone, his timing would be off and his ability to impact the game would be lacking compared with his full-speed self. The Bulls’ odds might improve marginally, but not to a degree that would make them any more serious challengers to the Heat, much less those opponents beyond.
Plus, let’s not forget that, as recounted by Tom Ziller of SB Nation, Chicago hasn’t had the best track record of declaring its players physically fit to play. There’s certainly enough of a precedent for all involved — including Rose — to approach the opinions of the team’s medical officials with a bit of skepticism, particularly when Rose is the most qualified to assess his own level of comfort and pain.
3. Is there an argument to be made that the Bulls are better off without Rose right now?
Ben Golliver: I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are “better off” without Rose. But they’re doing just fine (to say the least) without him, to the point where they’ve officially reached the “We’re playing with house money” stage of the postseason. Listening to Joakim Noah’s prideful postgame address to Bulls fans after the Game 7 win over the Nets was a crowning achievement for the team and city. Their follow-up performance on Monday in Miami was something special, and it came together perfectly thanks to outstanding nights from Jimmy Butler and Nate Robinson and some subpar performance from the Heat’s stars and role players.
Game 1 was so good that I think this series is already guaranteed to be a success for the Bulls, even if they were to go on and lose in five games. Coach Tom Thibodeau’s sterling reputation has gone up a few notches. Noah has vaulted himself to new heights in the national consciousness. Appreciating Butler has caught on like a fad. And the Bulls reminded everyone, for the umpteenth time, exactly what can be accomplished through intelligent, selfless defense and take-no-prisoners effort.
A Rose return — even if just in a “Willis Reed” symbolic way or in a very limited role — would bring with it a lot of variables. It would require on-the-fly adjustments and sacrifices — minutes, touches, shots — from his teammates. It would require patience from players, coaches, media and fans at a time when expecting patience is practically impossible. All that said, it’s hard to imagine Rose’s stepping onto the United Center court for the first time would be anything except an electric moment that brings the Bulls together.
Putting those two thoughts together, I think the Bulls have improbably arrived at a win/win here. If Rose doesn’t return, a winning season has already been secured. If he does, a magical moment is guaranteed and everything else would be gravy. One thing is for sure: The thought of Rose’s “disrupting” the Bulls shouldn’t enter the equation at all.
Rob Mahoney: Let me be abundantly clear: Though Rose would be a boon for the Bulls at most any other time, his return to this series would make them immediately less competitive. The energy surrounding Rose’s comeback would be awesome, but this series will be won on the basis of Chicago’s collective ability to execute, and I’m not sure that Rose would be confident enough in his knee to make a significant difference in the way the Bulls are playing.
Ben also alluded to this above, but we should keep in mind that Rose is hardly familiar with this current Bulls team. Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson are all familiar faces, but Bulls mainstay Luol Deng is unlikely to play for a spell and the rest of the roster has been turned over. Gone is most of the bench mob, replaced by three players — Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Nazr Mohammed — who are all new to the team. Butler was a Bull a season ago, but he shared the court with Rose for only 75 minutes, according to NBA.com. Even Kirk Hinrich (who is also injured at the moment) hasn’t played with Rose since 2010, leaving a team for which chemistry and trust are prime assets to operate with precious few points of reference should Rose return.
Chicago is winning playoff games because of a finely tuned role awareness, by which every player is able to contribute something offensively and step into a high-functioning system defensively. With Rose, all of that would be cast in doubt; he could help the Bulls create, but in a series against such a formidable opponent I suspect he might be enough of a defensive liability to cause considerable problems for Chicago. Robinson and Belinelli may present their own problems on that end, but at least both of those players have been operating in Thibodeau’s system all season long, with Noah and Gibson in a position to better anticipate their errors and gambles. Team defense relies on an understanding of when and how to help, and at this point a limited Rose would introduce an unpredictable variable to a system that relies on preemption and order.
4. What’s been the best development during Rose’s absence?
Ben Golliver: There have been a bunch and I mentioned a few of them — Thibodeau’s growing legend, Robinson’s emergence, Butler’s literal rags-to-riches story — above. As tempted as I am to pick Butler, I’ll go with Noah’s taking his game to the next level. Center Omer Asik’s departure in free agency opened up the minutes, but Rose’s absence opened up the attention. The nagging foot problems took a little bit of the luster off of an incredible all-around season for Noah, stunting his ability to compete for end-of-season recognition, but his play against the Nets, especially as the series reached its conclusion, was breathtaking. This guy would be a basketball aficionado’s dream player — if we were creative and ambitious enough to dream up the insane combination of skills he brings to the table.
Rob Mahoney: You might pass, Ben, but I’ll take the easy option here and choose Butler’s development. The Rose-shaped void in Chicago’s offense has allowed many different Bulls to try their hand in an expanded role, but Butler has impressed most by making huge strides as a shooter and driver this season.
He’s rightly praised for his fantastic defense, and that area of his game should continue to improve. But Butler represents the sound, two-way shooting guard option that Chicago has never really had in the Rose era, capable of spotting up (Butler didn’t attempt all that many three-pointers this season, but he converted 38.5 percent of his spot-up threes, per Synergy, and is becoming a more potent long-range threat by the day), cutting opposite Rose’s penetration and even creating for himself in a pinch. He’s stretched out his skill set in a way that should make him incredibly useful when Rose returns the offense to order.
5. Snap take: Where do you see the Bulls finishing with Rose healthy next season?
Ben Golliver: At this point I don’t see any way the Bulls are worse than second in the East next season. Give me the Rose/Noah/Deng/Boozer/Butler/Gibson group over the projected lineups for the Knicks, Pacers, Nets and whoever else next season, no question. The fact that the Bulls hung on to finish No. 5 in the East this season made it easy to forget that the only reason that Miami was so far out in front of New York and Indiana was because Chicago with a healthy Rose would have been somewhere in that gap between No. 1 and everybody else.
Not to get overly conservative, but that landscape is a powerful influence on Rose’s current predicament. If I were a member of Bulls management, I’d look at my books, see that all of my key players were locked in for next season, survey the East competition to see Miami as the one clear threat and then live to fight another day in 2013-14. As noted above, this should still be Rose’s decision to make — in consultation with doctors, of course — but glancing ahead to next season might help alleviate the urgency some are expressing in demanding his return. There is a big picture — a favorable one at that — for Chicago and Rose to consider.
Rob Mahoney: The offseason leaves plenty of room for upheaval in these kinds of predictions, but I’m in agreement that the Bulls as currently constructed should theoretically be the Easts’s second-best team and could make a realistic run at the best record in the conference in 2013-14. This is an outstanding overall team when Rose is able to prop up the offense, and the front office has done an outstanding job over the last few seasons of finding great value to round out the roster.
Robinson and Belinelli may well be gone next year, but I have little doubt that Bulls GM Gar Forman and his staff already have a bead on their potential successors. Once those rotation positions are secured and the roster is confirmed to be in good health, Chicago can safely be penciled in as the East’s definitive No. 2.