Changing pace, face of franchise
Slowed Rose may not be the same, so Bulls must retool to again contend in future
There's no spinning this. There's no silver lining to look for, no side benefit to be realized down the road. This latest Derrick Rose injury is a shot to the heart, very likely a game changer in a way that could force the men who run the Chicago Bulls franchise to hit the reset button.
It's the cruelest blow we've seen in Chicago, really. Right there with Gale Sayers injuring his right knee at 25, while he was the most explosive and spectacular player in professional football, then his left knee at 27, rendering him physically unable to put together a body of work that took full advantage of his incomparable physical gifts.
It's so hard to come by a truly great player in the NBA, one who can be the league's most valuable; and it's much more necessary to have one in pro basketball than in any other team sport. The Bulls needed such unspeakable luck not only to draft a player of this magnitude, but to draft him, Rose, somebody who was not only with us but of us. And from Chicago ...
But his second injury makes you reconsider everything ... such as, maybe D-Rose simply can't play the game the way he wants to play it, maybe he can't explode and cut with the ferocity he has until now. Maybe it isn't advisable he come back firing fastballs, but instead rely for the first time on changing speeds and sleight of hand.
Bernard King did it, once upon a time in the 1980s, coming back from two serious knee injuries at a time when medical technology and rehabilitation were primitive compared to what they are now. King was never great after the knee surgeries, but he was really good. And if settling for that seemed unthinkable a month ago, it now sounds like the new Rose reality. People keep looking for a precedent, a player of consequence who came back from not just one knee surgery but two. Well, study King's career.
And with that new reality almost certainly comes a new plan for the Bulls, one that doesn't include contending for a championship in the immediate future. The saddest part, even more depressing than Rose limping to the bench the other night in Portland, is coming grudgingly to the realization that all those carefully laid plans, such as drafting Luol Deng and Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson and Jimmy Butler, and reacquiring Kirk Hinrich and signing Mike Dunleavy probably mean so little now, because an ensemble cast only works in the NBA when it surrounds a star, and Rose has been that star.
How many teams find a home-grown star, who isn't a diva, who isn't resented by a solitary soul, who hits the game winners, sells tickets, lures sponsors, moves huge quantities of jerseys, gets the team on national television on Christmas Day and does the franchise and his hometown proud? Go ahead, check the standings of every team sport in America and tell me how many people can put a check in all of those boxes.
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Because now the Bulls, just like 20 or so other franchises, have to once again be wondering how they can acquire that one indomitable player they can build everything around.
The Chicago franchise is lucky to have Nikola Mirotic, likely the best player in Europe, on the way next summer. (In a perfect world Mirotic could have joined a Rose-led squad and had minimal pressure to contribute immediately.) And it's lucky to have Charlotte's draft pick, protected until 2016, even if that pick winds up being outside the lottery because the Bobcats are getting better.
But it's going to take those existing assets, a ton of lottery luck, trading, signing and maneuvering to build a roster strong enough to be a serious contender. Which is why you'll read in a lot of places, though not here, that Gar Forman and John Paxson should gut the roster, right now if necessary, to try to be bad enough to get into the next lottery.
That's foolishness. OK, the Bulls aren't in position to be as good as they were last season because they no longer have Marco Belinelli (who they should have kept this season) nor Nate Robinson, both of whom could create shots for themselves or for teammates.
But the way it is going now, the Eastern Conference could be the worst we've ever seen. Only three teams, going into Monday night's action, had winning records. After Miami and Indiana, every position is up for grabs. The Bulls still have two All-Stars (Deng and Noah) and even without playmakers will be good enough to finish fifth or sixth in the East -- and maybe even third if the Knicks and Nets continue to stink the joint out for much longer.
And here's what really works against the Bulls dumping the season: They have a coach, Thibs, whose very existence is the antithesis of tanking. Because of Tom Thibodeau, this Bulls team will be good enough and play hard enough to win, oh, 42 or 43 games and make the playoffs, but not be a threat to the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat.
That's the worst place to be in the NBA: too good for the lottery, not good enough to win in the playoffs and in possession of (except for Butler) too many veteran players.
Forman and Paxson must decide if they want to trade away Deng, Boozer, Noah and Hinrich and start over, or wait to see what Rose will look like next November and how Mirotic fits into the equation. (Personally, I never thought this was the Bulls' season; I thought possibly it was next season, with Mirotic becoming something of a new Tony Kukoc.)
But the presence of a great player, a top-10 player, is absolutely necessary, and there's no way anymore to plan on Rose being that.
However, in the middle of grieving you don't just sell off all your assets and hope to get in on the back end of the lottery, even one as good as the 2014 lottery. There's no guaranteed quick fix here.
Remember, the Bulls have been a lottery fixture before (Elton Brand, Jason Williams, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry) and failed to come away with transcendent players. It ain't automatic. There's a fine line between acting decisively and being rash so as to appease the loudest and most depressed people out there who simply want Forman and Paxson to "do something" in the wake of Rose's second injury
Yes, there will likely have to be a new agenda, but also a new set of expectations to match. But the reality is the team that was built to reach the NBA Finals with Rose leading the way, the team that got so close in May 2011, is one that will now slowly be deconstructed without having had the cracks at a winning a championship it deserved.