Derrick Rose was so close to reaching the most important goal he set last October: finishing a season. Yes, knee soreness has plagued Rose throughout the 2014-15 season. And, yes, he has hardly resembled the player who won the 2011 MVP. Two reconstructed knees will do that to you. The explosiveness has diminished and the confidence to call on that explosiveness was often missing. As a result, the once-bulldozing Rose was an All-Star afterthought, a perimeter shooter, and not a particularly efficient one at that: He’s made 40.7 percent of his shots this season and a ghastly 28.7 percent of his three-point attempts.
Still: He almost made it. He had played in 19 straight games, in 30 of Chicago’s last 31 and, physically, looked fine. He posted 30 points against Cleveland in the last game before the All-Star break and had shown signs, albeit inconsistent ones, of regaining pieces of his lost form. After missing one entire season and more than half of two more, seeing mid-April would have been a considerable accomplishment. And Chicago, hovering in the middle of the pack of a mediocre Eastern Conference, struggling to rediscover its defensive identity and working to reincorporate a healthy Rose alongside newcomer Pau Gasol, still believed it had a chance to win a championship with its depth and experience and, yes, Derrick Rose, fueled that.
That changed on Tuesday, when the Bulls announced that Rose would undergo surgery after an MRI revealed a meniscus tear in his right knee, the same knee and ligament that shelved Rose for all but ten games last season. The team gave no timetable for Rose’s return and two sources close to Rose said it was too soon to tell whether this latest injury would end his season. The Chicago Tribune reported that the tear is not believed to be as extensive as Rose’s initial injury last season. Generally, when the meniscus is removed a player can make a speedy recovery, usually within two months. Recently, though, some players (most notably Dwyane Wade) have expressed regret over choosing that option. Repairing it requires a longer recovery, but is believed to be better for the long-term health.
“Just brutal,” one source texted. The entire NBA agrees.
So many wanted to believe Rose could make it, that, at 26, there was enough time to recover from three lost seasons. There may still be, but it becomes harder to believe now. Injury after injury, surgery after surgery, and it’s fair to wonder not just if Rose can recover physically, but if he can overcome the mental wall that stands between him and what he once was.
To the Bulls, Rose is irreplaceable, which is why everyone in the organization will hold out hope until told otherwise that Rose can find his way back to the floor this season. Chicago has been thrilled with the vastly improved Jimmy Butler and pleasantly surprised by the steadiness of Gasol. But Rose is the key. He’s the team’s most dynamic player and its most accomplished fourth-quarter scorer. The effort won’t stop — the relentless Tom Thibodeau will see to that—but without Rose, the Bulls are a gritty playoff series or two before going home.
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Life without Rose is not uncharted territory for Chicago, though this summer the team will have to think hard about whether they can build around him. The relationship between Thibodeau and the Bulls front office continues to be shaky and has led to speculation that Thibodeau — who has two years remaining on his contract — and the Bulls could part ways. Butler is a restricted free agent and Chicago will likely have to pony up close to max dollars to re-sign him. Rose, with $41 million owed to him over the next two seasons, is the definition of untradeable, but the Bulls may have to reevaluate how they view him.
Can Rose still be a capable player, a top-15 point guard? Sure. Russell Westbrook has undergone three surgeries on his meniscus and is an MVP candidate this season. Rose has an unquestioned work ethic and has battled back from adversity before. But can he be a franchise player? That’s more difficult to answer.
Across the league, reaction to Rose’s latest injury was gut wrenching. The NBA is a fraternity and Rose’s injury shook its members to the core. All will hope for the best, but with Rose, it’s hard not to expect the worst.