Derrick Rose's return complicated by massive expectations
"He's not sitting out the entire [2012-2013] year."
-- Reggie Rose, Derrick's brother, to the Chicago Tribune, May 13, 2012
Uh, what happened to that?
Here we are, a year later, and Derrick Rose sure looks like he will sit out the entire season. That could change at any moment -- Rose has been practicing with the Bulls since January, doctors have reportedly cleared him to play in games and he could suddenly decide to go. But he looks and sounds like a guy who doesn't plan to play this season
After tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the first game of the playoffs last spring, Rose has gone from one of the least controversial players in the NBA to one of the most controversial. The more he sits, the more we wonder. The more we wonder, the louder we get. There are only three former MVPs still alive in the NBA playoffs: LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Rose. And one of them has been cleared to play, but won't.
Rose is making the right decision. This is true if he plays and true if he doesn't, because he is making it for the right reason: He wants to be one of the best players in the world again. That's what the Bulls want, too. When you strip away everything else, this is as simple as that.
There is a lot of debate about whether Rose's decision is physical or mental. Really, it's neither.
It is tactical.
Rose can't say that, because he will look like he is abandoning his team, at a time when the Bulls are all fighting injuries -- Kirk Hinrich has a bruised calf, Luol Deng is battling an illness, Joakim Noah has plantar fasciitis and Nate Robinson is fighting the effects of landing here from another planet. Rose is healthy enough to give it a run, and he isn't.
This is frustrating. But Rose seems to realize: Whenever he comes back, he must be his best again. If he comes back at 85 percent of his old self, that will be a huge disappointment. This is true of any NBA superstar, but it is especially true of Derrick Rose.
His game is predicated on extraordinary athleticism and constant driving to the basket. He is not a great shooter. He has good size for a point guard, but he is still one of the smaller players on the court. He can't make up for lost athleticism with skill and craftiness in the way that, say, James or Kevin Durant could, because he is not as big and doesn't shoot as well.
And in the NBA, there is a premium on being one of the very best players in the world. I don't buy the popular theory that you need one of the top five players in the league to win the championship, but man, it sure helps, especially with so much talent across the league. If Rose is worried about coming back too early and never reaching his peak again, I understand.
He is not just another player. A lot of people need him at his very best. Consider the constituencies with a stake in this:
• The Bulls. Noah is 28, Deng is 28 and Rose is 24. They have several years of contention left. But in order to win a title, they probably need Rose to play at close to an MVP level. If he comes back too soon, or plays tentatively and gets hurt again, that could kill more than a season. It could destroy an era.
• Adidas. It's easy to dismiss a shoe company, and you might be disgusted that this is even in the conversation. But ask yourself this: As an employee, wouldn't your loyalty be to the employer who pays you the most? Over the course of Rose's career, that may turn out to be Adidas. And Adidas is not expecting him to be a pretty good NBA player. He is supposed to be a star.
• Chicago. This is his hometown, and unlike most NBA stars of his generation, Rose has never considered playing for another franchise. Why does this matter? I think he has a better sense of what a championship would mean to his city than most athletes, and he definitely has a better sense of what he means to his city. Chicago will always be his hometown. He cares what people think of him there, and not just this spring.
• Himself. Rose was one of the top recruits in the country in high school, one of the best players in college basketball in his one year at Memphis and a franchise player from the moment he was drafted No. 1 overall. He has set a certain standard for himself, and, of course, he wants to live up to it. The possibility of rushing back and never being a great player again must scare him.
So yes, he could play right now. And it is quite possible that coming back now would not damage his career at all. I think Rose probably decided a bit too early that he wasn't going to play this year -- he dug in, and he can't bring himself to change his mind. (One reason the Bulls have done so well without him: They aren't waiting on him. They have assumed for weeks that they won't have him.)
But if Rose thinks he needs to sit out, then he does. And this brings me to the other thing Reggie Rose said last May: "Once he learns how to trust his body, then we will put him out there. We're just not going to pressure him back."
Nobody ever questioned Derrick Rose's desire before. I won't do it now.