It's the question that has hovered around the Chicago Bulls all season. It's also the question that came right back to the forefront after USA TODAY Sports released an interview with Rose on Tuesday that quoted the former MVP as saying he's still "far away" from returning.
"I don't have a set date," Rose told USA TODAY Sports. "I'm not coming back until I'm 110 percent. Who knows when that can be? It can be within a couple of weeks. It could be next year. It could be any day. It could be any time. It's just that I'm not coming back until I'm ready."
Rose's comments came as a surprise to some fans, and undoubtedly to some with the Bulls organization, because it raised a question that not many people had considered up to that point: Could Rose really sit out the entire season?
Rose's teammates, coaches and Bulls front office executives wanted Rose to come back when the time is right. They didn't want to push him and make him feel even more pressure to return. But almost all believed -- both publicly and privately -- that Rose would return at some point this season. They have seen the way he has progressed in practice and they could tell he was starting to look like his old self again. But now doubt has crept in. The question that should concern Bulls fans most isn't if and when Rose is returning -- it's whose decision will it be?
All along it was made clear from Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf on down within the organization that the decision on whether Rose would play would be a joint decision based on doctors' recommendations. As Tom Thibodeau has stated many times throughout the season, and again after Tuesday's practice, when Rose is ready to play, he will play. The Bulls have gone out of their way not to put a return date on Rose's comeback because they don't want to put added stress on him, and they don't want fans to get excited, only to face a potential setback later on.
But after reading Rose's comments, and reading between the lines, it doesn't seem as if it will be that simple anymore. There seems to be growing concern among fans, and various people within the organization, that some of Rose's people would rather he sit for the rest of the season and come back for a fresh start for 2013-14. The pressure of trying to play like his old self in the heat of a playoff chase is something some close to Rose would like to avoid, especially because they want him to come back in the best situation possible for success.
One source told ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers as much Tuesday.
"You're not jeopardizing winning a championship, but you're jeopardizing Derrick's career if he plays and gets hurt again," said the source, who indicated the chance of Rose returning this season is "50-50." "A lot of people are seeing him doing 1-on-1 or 2-on-2, but he's not ready. He's not 100 percent yet.
How much of a role will Derrick Rose's agents, including B.J. Armstrong, have in his return?
"Derrick has to feel comfortable. That's the key. He has to feel comfortable. There's no way in hell he's going to feel pressure. There's too much at stake. He has signed all these deals."
Therein lies the new problem for the Bulls. What if the decision as to whether Rose plays this season is no longer theirs? What if the decision to play is more of a financial one than a physical one? It has to be the new biggest fear within the Bulls organization. What if Rose is healthy enough to play and has been cleared by doctors, but the people around him are telling him to wait until next season? Are the Bulls really willing to risk standing up to Rose if he says he's not "110 percent" and ready to play?
The people in Rose's camp aren't stupid. They know what is riding on his return. They know if Rose gets hurt again, all of the endorsements and good will will fade away. They also know that even if Rose came back as his old self -- the player who set the league on fire in his first few years -- the Bulls probably still don't have enough to win a championship this season. They understand all of the pressure that will be on the 24-year-old to succeed right away, and they know Thibodeau isn't the type of guy who is going to take his foot off the pedal and ease his point guard into the lineup, especially with a playoff berth on the line.
Rose appears to be doing all the same things he used to do, in the glimpses the assembled media have seen of him. He looks like it's only a matter of time before he plays in games again ... and maybe it is. But the interview set up by his agency, and the fact that people around him seem to be wondering if it's in his best interest to come back this season, should give everyone pause.
All of these questions will be answered at some point in the near future, but the longer Rose waits to return, the more people will wonder if he's coming back at all this season.