What if Derrick Rose never got injured?
Imagine a world where the bones and requisite connective tissues of the human knee are indestructible. Well, maybe not all humans. Let's say just Derrick Rose.
On Wednesday, it was announced that Rose would need surgery to repair a tear in his medial meniscus. He's out indefinitely, with the spectre of not seeing him on a basketball court until next Fall looming. A similar injury limited Rose to just 10 games last season, and he has played in just 95 games over the four seasons since winning MVP, as medical professionals have worked to repair damage in both knees from several injuries.
Injuries are a sad and frustrating part of sports (said the guy sitting on his futon), but that becomes intensified in the case of someone like Rose. An immense talent, knocked down before reaching his theoretical peak and then repeatedly tripped and swatted by the fates as he tries to get back on his feet. We all try to avoid drifting towards worst-case scenarios, but we have all seen too many Greg Odens and Brandon Roys not to. And this is just the struggle for outside observers. An emotional and psychological struggle of an entirely different kind is going on in the hall of the United Center and with Rose, his friends and family.
However you dealt with the news of Rose's injury this week-sadness, cautious optimism, something in between-you had to acknowledge the actual reality of what is happening to him. For us outsiders, with no stake in this game but fandom and human empathy, I would like to offer a different path-stubborn refusal to interact with reality and a hasty retreat to the world of fantasy and imagination. Just imagine a world where The Fates harbored no grudges against Rose, where he has always been the very model of orthopedic health.
In this world, the Bulls' loss at the hands of the Miami Heat in the 2011 Playoffs was not a last glimpse of Rose's potential, unblemished by lingering questions of health. It was a step forward, one of those narrative-driving, "I get knocked down, but I get up again," moments that foments the rising action of a career arc. Rose struggled mightily in the last four games of that series, shooting 32 of 98 from the field and pairing 27 assists with 15 turnovers. Frequently guarded by LeBron James, Rose was slowed and the Bulls' offense withered without his life-giving dynamism.
In this world, that experience led to a knockout lockout campaign. With no nagging injuries to slow him, Rose rode a rising tide of intensity and focus, sent forth by the tremors of the previous season's playoff struggles. He was not the MVP, that honor still belonged to LeBron James, himself undergoing a personal transformation traced to playoff struggles. Feeling slighted at the MVP results and driven to exorcise playoff demons, Rose entered the postseason roaring and snarling, running through bricks wall.
In this world, his playoff campaign did not wrap up at the end of Game 1 with a torn ACL. His Bulls, tied with the San Antonio Spurs for best record in the league, did not lose to the Philadelphia 76ers in six games. By Adjusted Net Rating, this iteration of the Bulls was the best team in the league by a healthy margin and the best version of the Bulls in the Rose era. In this world, the NBA championship did not run through Oklahoma City or Miami, it found a home in Chicago.
In this world, it was Rose who grabbed playoff redemption and wrestled it to the ground, cementing a different sort of legacy.
This is where our chosen fantasy narrative departs most strongly from reality, and sets forth on paths unknown. Rose and the Chicago Bulls as 2012 NBA Champions changes everything-the legacies and narratives of the Spurs, the Heat and the Thunder drift far enough as to be unrecognizable. Too many threads pull in too many different directions to follow coherently. But we can follow Rose and we can follow the Bulls.
In this world, the Bulls become dynastic. And not in the way they have-being consistently good, consistently more than we expect and still consistently derailed. In this world, the Bulls are consistently fantastic. Rose does not miss an entire season, or the vast majority of the next. He stays healthy and dramatically explosive, physically. He continues to refine the softer parts of his game as well, not as a survival mechanism to try and escape knees working against his intentions, but because sometimes just running past or jumping over everyone becomes boring. In this world, Rose unintentionally settles the argument over what Russell Westbrook would look like with a little more self-control and keeps the "best point guard alive" debate open in a way that feels viscerally important.
In this world, the Bulls spend February of 2015 looking down on the rest of the Eastern Conference from great heights, chasing another championship, perhaps the latest in a long line of final victories. The emergence of Jimmy Butler and revival of Pau Gasol may or may not be a part of the story, but in this world they are inevitably secondary to the story of Rose's greatness. In this world, there are no regrets or missed opportunities, no would've, should've, could'ves.
In this world, there is just a beautifully healthy Derrick Rose, unfettered by physical pain or the accompanying emotional baggage, slicing through the lane and skying to the rim. There is just Derrick Rose, the basketball player he was always supposed to be.
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