CHICAGO -- The most important man in the Chicago Bulls organization was with the rest of his teammates at the United Center earlier this week. The only difference is that Derrick Rose wasn't on the floor working out as he continues to recover from a torn medial meniscus in his right knee.
About 45 minutes before executive VP John Paxson addressed the Luol Deng trade and myriad of other topics relating to the organization on Tuesday, Rose walked through the hallways with a smile on his face and without any noticeable limp. He politely declined comment about the news of the day, but in due time he will have to share his thoughts regarding the Bulls' new direction.
Is he upset with the move? Does he view it as a rebuilding project that he doesn't want to be a part of? And if he's upset, will he let that out well before his contract is up in 2017? Or does he view it as a necessary step to improve the business model and a chance to gather cap flexibility, as management believes?
No matter what other moves Paxson and the front office makes over the next few weeks, Rose remains at the heart of any direction the Bulls take. That's why it was telling to hear Paxson point out that owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Gar Forman discussed the deal with Rose. Not so much to see if Rose agreed with the move -- obviously he would rather have Deng, someone he's played with his entire career, stay with the Bulls -- but more to show respect toward the 25-year-old star in why the decision was made.
Reports have surfaced recently that Rose is unhappy with the Bulls' plan to rebuild and break up the current core, a process that started with the Deng move. Having covered Rose since the end of his rookie season, I've never gotten the sense that he was all that concerned about the roster formation. Rose has always held to the fact that he is a "hooper" and his job is to play basketball. The people around him might not be happy with some of the Bulls' decisions, but Rose himself never has appeared to take as much interest in personnel moves, recruiting free agents to come to Chicago, etc.
That's why it will be interesting to see what Rose has to say when he does finally speak again. They were teammates for four-plus seasons. They respected the way each other played and, like Tom Thibodeau, Rose couldn't have been happy about the decision to send Deng elsewhere. While Rose might still be convinced that this Bulls core could have won a championship, the front office was convinced otherwise, especially after Deng rejected their last-ditch contract offer.
Even if Rose is frustrated with the direction the Bulls have taken in the short term, there are still three more years for the organization to make more moves to improve their position and excite their superstar. Rose and the Bulls are heading into uncertainty together. Nobody knows if Rose can stay healthy or whether the Bulls will be able to add the right pieces to the roster even if he does avoid injury. Until Rose proves he can stay on the floor and produce like he did in years past, any other potential move is a moot point.
As the Bulls consider what moves to make, it was also telling to hear Paxson acknowledge what fans have known for a while regarding the former MVP. While there is hope that Rose returns to being the same player he was before his first knee injury, nobody knows for sure.
"We do believe that Derrick's going to be a great player again," Paxson said Tuesday. "We can't promise anybody that, but that's a belief of ours because we know Derrick well enough and we think he's going to work hard enough. But the challenge always is building a team and putting the group of players together. In this case it might be more about building with Derrick, as opposed to saying, 'OK, Derrick, you've got to shoulder all the burden.' But that's OK. Because I've seen plenty of teams win in this league, too, at a very high level, going about it that way."
Paxson made a critical distinction in his answer, though -- one that should be noted in any potential move the Bulls make in the future. No longer are the Bulls simply building around Rose as the focal point of everything they do.
They are building with him.
That means the Bulls understand they have the difficult task of building a championship-caliber team with a superstar who hasn't shown in recent years that he can stay healthy. Given that Rose still has those three years left after this one on a max contract, the reality for both parties is that Rose isn't going anywhere for a while.