Can Derrick Rose handle a new Derrick Rose?
By EVANS CLICHY
Three years ago, if you'd taken the pulse of NBA fans on Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, you'd have found his name right there alongside LeBron James and Kevin Durant as one of the elite players in the game. Rose was coming off of an MVP campaign, and was in the midst of leading the Bulls to 50 wins during the lockout-shortened season of 2011–12.
Fast-forward 36 months, however, and Rose's name still draws comparisons to a pair of very different players, for one very different reason. The comparison of Rose with Penny Hardaway and Brandon Roy is as sad as it is obvious. Instead of being viewed as one of the league's bright luminaries, Rose is now near-universally seen as yet another injury-plagued guard, a player whose incredible promise was obliterated by never-ending knee ailments.
Like Hardaway, who never made another All-Star team after his 27th birthday, or Roy, who retired at that same age, Rose's legacy will inextricably be linked to knee woes. Rose isn't necessarily done in the NBA -- he may, in fact, be far from it -- but he will never again be the MVP-caliber player that he once was.
Incidentally, Rose, Hardaway and Roy also faced the massive weight of unfair expectations. Adversity followed these godsends, almost from the moment they entered the league; each expected to turn its wayward franchises into a contenders.
In Hardaway's case, he was acquired on draft night in 1993 by an Orlando Magic team that was eager to pair him with Shaquille O'Neal -- a recipe that portended instant, unqualified success. To a certain extent, the Magic were successful. They qualified for the postseason in year one with Penny and Shaq, and even managed to advance to the NBA Finals in year two. Hardaway was still only 23 in 1995 when he reached those Finals, but little could he have known at the time that he'd never ascend to such heights again.
Next season saw Michael Jordan's return, the Bulls quickly swept the Shaq/Penny Magic out of the playoffs, and Hardaway's precipitous, injury-plagued decline followed soon after.
As for Roy, he was acquired in 2006 (like Hardaway, also in a draft night trade) by a Portland Trail Blazers organization that had been haunted by injuries throughout its history and was desperate to find a franchise savior. Portland had been burned before by the injury-plagued careers of Bill Walton, Sam Bowie and Arvydas Sabonis. Its new plan was to build around Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and an additional TBD young cornerstone. (The following June, they selected Greg Oden with the first overall pick -- we all know how that worked out.)
Hardaway and Roy found themselves in unfortunate situations, victims of tremendous franchise burdens. They were young, they were talented, and they were flashy; their teams wanted to build dynastic futures around them. But in neither case would it be a stretch to say that their teams asked too much of them. In the end, Hardaway's and Roy's bodies proved incapable of holding up to the physical demands of an NBA career.
Hardaway was a first-team All-NBA selection in his second NBA season and then again in his third; Roy was a second-teamer in his third year as well. Rose began his career by doing them both one better -- he was barely old enough to drink when he was named most valuable player in the whole damn league.
Rose's MVP selection was viewed as a wonderful, Cinderella-esque story; validation for a modest, almost reluctant superstar, an anti-LeBron that an NBA fanbase sorely then-needed. But now, looking back, the award looks far more tragic than fairytale.
Beyond the fact that Rose's MVP probably wasn't deserved -- advanced metrics like PER and win shares had LeBron and Dwight Howard as superior players that season -- Chicago's overall success was more attributable to its defense than its offense. On the defensive end, Rose actually made the Bulls 7.4 points per 100 possessions worse when he was on the floor; the team's real stopper at the guard position that season was C.J. Watson.
The truth about Rose is that winning an NBA MVP at age 22 created expectations that were impossible to fulfill. And everything that has happened since: the demands, the hype, and endless disappointment we've experienced, are fruit from the tree of wasted potential, yet we continue to eat and eat and eat.
When you compare the plights of Hardaway and Roy to what is unfolding now with Rose in Chicago, the similarities are eerily similar, only the story with Rose is far, far worse.
When the news broke last week that Rose had suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee, it was a disappointing, but not altogether surprising development. The tear was the same injury (though milder this time) as the one that derailed his 2013–14 campaign, which came on the heels of him missing a year and a half with a torn ACL in his left knee.
It would be disingenuous, though, to look at Rose's litany of health issues in a vacuum and instinctively slap the "injury prone" label on him. With Rose, it's just not that simple. The very public scorn Rose has faced is a byproduct of both his physical breakdowns and the NBA's long and well-documented history of sky-high expectations, and the inherent pressure that comes along with them.
With some players, injuries just happen. With Derrick Rose, it is absolutely reasonable to posit a theory that his injuries do not just happen; they are, on some level, manifestations of a rabid public's self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, his knees are a mess. And yes, the various factors that have contributed to this state of affairs surely include his rehab process, his minutes played, his style of play (before and after the injuries), and his own mental approach while trying to operate in a Chicago-area echo chamber that dissects and criticizes his every move.
In essence, the conditions for re-injury were ripe, and I don't just mean with respect to the deteriorating conditions that have been festering in Rose's knees all along.
Rose arrived in the NBA with a mandate to be The Next Big Thing. A legendary high school player and native Chicago son, he led Simeon High to a 120–12 overall record during his four years there, earning Illinois Mr. Basketball and McDonald's All-American honors along the way. Rose was a monster during his one season at Memphis, carrying the Tigers all the way to the NCAA title game in 2008.
He was drafted No. 1 overall that spring, brought immediate comparisons to other previous top picks named LeBron and Dwight and Duncan and Iverson. Rose, though, he wasn't just any No. 1 overall pick -- he was Chicago's No. 1 overall pick. Playing in the Windy City meant meant following in Jordan's footsteps; it meant living up to expectations that were almost impossible to meet. Rose's own owner began comparing him to MJ at a young age; who was he to argue the point?
Rose started 80 games and averaged 37 minutes per game as a rookie. He went toe-to-toe with Rajon Rondo and the defending champion Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. In year two, he joined forces with Tom Thibodeau, who only pushed him to do more, more, and more. The grueling two and three-hour practices were just the tip of the iceberg. In the games, Rose's workload only became more daunting.
Especially when compared to his No. 1 pick brethren:
Add in the postseason play, and the totals become truly staggering: 10,071 NBA minutes through 2011, at the age of 22.
Rose's initial ACL injury -- which occurred in Game 1 of Chicago's playoff series against Philadelphia on April 28, 2012 -- happened with just 1:10 remaining ,and the Bulls leading by 12 points. They'd been up by 16 just a minute earlier. At the time, it may have seemed like a one-in-a-million chance that the final 1:10 would bring a career-altering injury, but in retrospect, someone should have been exercising a greater degree of caution. Those 70 seconds were capping a cumulative effect of years of overwork.
The Bulls have always played a high-stakes game when it's come to Rose. Between his draft pedigree, that infamous Chicago pressure cooker, and the inherently competitive nature of the Bulls' organization, Rose has been under fire since the moment he first arrived in the NBA.
To some degree, each and every one of us who has anted-up are to blame.
The city and the organization are to blame for demanding so much from their homegrown star player. The fans are to blame for projecting expectations upon "their guy," expecting nothing shy of excellence, elite performance and championships. Tom Thibodeau is culpable. And to at least some degree, so is Rose himself.
After all, it's fair to ask, if, after the series of knee injuries that he's been through, whether Rose has actually assessed and/or modified the way in which he plays. Athletes have often told us, "I only know one way to play, and that's full-throttle." For Rose, however, his one way isn't working anymore. The old Rose -- that demon who possessed speed so blazing that no defender could keep him from the rim -- isn't walking through that door. The new Rose needs to adapt. He needs to develop as a shooter and a playmaker. In short, he needs an old man game.
He won't be able to dominate anymore with plays like this:
The twisting, turning, herky-jerky style of play that made Rose so successful at 22 isn't going to be effective for him now, at 26, coming off several knee injuries. His moves made him an incredible player for a brief period early in his career; more fun to watch than just about anybody in the game. But now, not so much.
Rose might have quality years left as a pro if he wants them, but it's time for him to adjust. It's also time for us to adjust with him.
Whenever Rose gets back, whether it's weeks or months or years from now, we should all assess him with a re-calibrated view of his potential. We can still appreciate Derrick Rose's talent without demanding the presence of Derrick Rose, NBA Superstar. If we expect dominant play on a consistent basis, we will surely be setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Rose will surely remain a $94 million household name (his current deal doesn't expire until 2017), but that doesn't mean he has to be a Jordan-esque one-man force. It doesn't mean he needs to explode to the rim on every single touch of the basketball. And it certainly doesn't mean he needs to be overworked -- practice after practice, game after game -- by a coach and an organization intent on squeezing every last drop of production from his clearly decaying body.
You can call Derrick Rose's career a disappointment if you want, but disappointment is relative. It depends entirely on the lens through which you view him. If you wanted Rose to be the next Jordan, then you are going home unhappy.
Instead of lamenting what might have been, however, NBA and Bulls fans alike should hope that Derrick Rose is able to return as a happy, healthy and moderately productive NBA player. He'll never be MJ now, we know that, but he doesn't have to be B-Roy or Penny, either.
Let's just let him be D-Rose.
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