PHILADELPHIA -- Tom Thibodeau couldn't help but chuckle at the question late Wednesday night.
What has he learned about his team in the first month without Derrick Rose?
"Well, obviously we'd prefer to have him," Thibodeau said.
But when exactly will that be?
Seven months into his rehab, the answer is still the same: Nobody knows. Thibodeau and plenty of others within the Bulls' organization are confident that Rose will return at some point this season, but nobody knows exactly when. They like how the former MVP is coming along in rehab and they like the fact that he is running more each day, but one thing everyone seems to be clear on is that Rose is only going to return when he is 100 percent healthy. Jerry Reinsdorf told ESPN Chicago that this summer and that has been the message everyone within the organization has held to up to this point.
"Here's the thing," Thibodeau said. "Derrick missed half the season last year so we got used to playing without him last year. He hasn't been here all this year so the guys that are here have done a great job of concentrating on their improvement, our next opponent, and being ready to play.
"Derrick is concentrating on his rehab and at some point he'll join the team. But we can't be looking to Derrick for our motivation. Derrick's taking care of what he has to take care of and the guys in that locker room have to take care of what they need to take care of. And we got to keep concentrating on our improvement. That's the big challenge for us."
Thibodeau has gone out of his way to separate Rose from the rest of his team in the past few months. As he said, he didn't want them focusing on Rose's return and he didn't want Rose worrying about how to help the Bulls. All Thibodeau wanted was for Rose to come back when he is ready. That's why it should be a good sign for all Bulls fans that Rose is slowly but surely doing more things in the public eye. He runs a little more at the end of practices while the assembled media is still around. He shoots a little more while the cameras are still rolling. For the last few months, aside from a huge promotional campaign by adidas, everything Rose did was cloaked in secrecy. Thibodeau and the Bulls didn't want any information out because they wanted him to recover at his own pace.
The difference is that Rose is starting to appear a little more in the public eye. He is still escorted out of the United Center before games start by team security, but at least he's been around more. The few times I've gotten to speak with him in passing recently he seems to be in better spirits than at any point last season. He repeatedly says he's doing good and he's feeling better.
Between the various injuries, the pressures to compete for a title and the birth of his new son, the emotions of the past year weighed heavily on the 24-year-old at times, and that was before the ACL injury. I believe the rehab he's had to endure, and the fact that he's missed so much time this season, has allowed Rose to gain some balance in his life that may not have been there in full force before. He wants to be back on the floor, and when he gets back he will be ready for all the challenges headed his way.
Nobody wants him back on the floor more than Thibodeau, but the veteran coach also knows that the weight of the franchise is on Rose's surgically repaired knee. The Bulls aren't going to rush Rose back, no matter how good or bad they may be doing. Rose's absence has been felt throughout the organization and throughout the league.
"You take one of the most dynamic players in the league off your team, ask Tom how much fun it is at the end of games not getting shots," Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doug Collins said. "When you can put that ball in Derrick Rose's hands and he either gets a shot for himself or gets it for somebody else, gets to the free throw line, gets out on the break, gets you easy scores, drives and kicks, gets you threes, you can't replace that."
The Bulls' DNA may be the same with Thibodeau at the helm, but without Rose's presence on the floor the Bulls have looked and sounded different.
"Chicago's going to always defend you," Collins said. "They're always going to be in the games, but if you look at it I think they're averaging fewer points a game this year, their defensive numbers are still good, but when you can't consistently score in this league, it's hard. The defenses have gotten so good and teams don't give you any points, they just don't.
"And when you don't get easy points in this league, if you don't have a guy that you can get that ball to and say, 'Go get your shot or get us a shot,' ... this is not a league of running plays, it's a league of making plays. The teams that make the most plays win, not the teams that run the most plays. And Derrick Rose is one of the best playmakers in the NBA."
So when will that playmaker be back doing what he does best?
I've always felt his return would come at some point after the All-Star break, maybe late February or early March. But if I've learned anything covering this Bulls team without its star it's that nobody really knows the answer to that question.