For Chicago, this is not a new story: Once again, it all rests on the shoulders and legs of one spectacular man. A high flying, body twisting, feather fingered acrobat who is the youngest league MVP in the award’s illustrious history. Rewind to the 2011 playoffs. The Chicago Bulls, led by a 22 year old point guard named Derrick Rose stormed through the first two rounds in the East to meet Miami in a hard-nosed and gritty conference finals series. The Heat won, but knew they hadn’t seen the last of the young, upstart Bulls. They would be back, the Heat knew, and they would be better.
Fast forward to tip-off of game one, round one, 2012 playoffs; the eighth seeded Philadelphia 76ers square off against the first seeded Chicago Bulls. The Bulls are heavily favoured to give the Sixers a serious whoopin’. They’re not just expected to win; they’re expected to blow the Sixers out of the park led by their young superstar. And that’s exactly what the Bulls did through game one. Rose had 23 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists with the game in the bag as the clock winded down to the last couple of minutes in the fourth. With 1: 22 to go, the ball in his hands at mid-court, Rose drives into the lane, out-maneuvering every defender in his path. Four, five feet from the basket, he springs up for one of those regulation jaw-dropping plays he records about a dozen times every game. Only this time, he doesn’t land very well; he tears an ACL, a horrific injury for a professional athlete. The Bulls win the game but lose the series, only the fifth time in NBA history a number one seed has been beaten in the first round. The Bulls watched as an aging Boston team made it to the conference finals and push the Heat to the limit. We should have been that team, the city of Chicago said. It was as if the Rocky series ended with part one. No rematch. No superstar. Only a devastating injury that athletes struggle to recover from.
It’ll soon be 2012-13 and the situation hasn’t changed for the Bulls. It all rests on the shoulders and legs of one spectacular man…only those legs might never be the same anymore. There is simply no precedent for an athlete of Rose’s caliber to be hit with such an injury. We just don’t know how much of his former explosiveness and lift will remain. The only comparable NBA star to recover successfully from such an injury was Baron Davis, and Davis in his prime did not have anything like the supernatural athleticism Rose brought to the court every game.
The injury has the Bulls in a limbo; the earliest timetable for a Rose return could be in February-March next year. And he isn’t going to be what he was prior to the injury till at least the season after next. That’s the recovery curve no matter what Rose seeks to achieve. Rose recently told his former coach, basketball legend John Calipari, to “wait until you see my body till I come back”. It’s not just Calipari – the entire city of Chicago is doing nothing but waiting.
Because the Bulls without Rose haven’t a hope in the playoffs. The roster has only gotten worse from last season, opening up the possibility of Chicago missing the playoffs altogether next season. Forward Luol Deng’s name has come up in multiple trade rumors over the summer. He’s got injuries of his own and has refused to go under the surgical knife till after the London Olympics (Deng plays for Britain). The Bulls have already traded away three-point specialist Kyle Korver and have let point guards C. J. Watson and John Lucas III, who came up big in Rose’s absence last season, seek new homes. It now appears that Omer Asik will leave for Houston as well. That’s a significant hit for the Bulls’ bench. The writing is on the wall: the Bulls understand that they may not be able to compete for a championship next season. The Kyle Korver trade was a purely financial one; the Bulls have been surprisingly quiet on the free agent front this offseason as well. The decision to not match Asik’s contract – which would be almost 15 million in its third year – is definitely financial; coach Thibodeau has often stated that Asik is key to his defensive schemes. They have signed fan favourite Kirk Hinrich, but Hinrich is no game changer, he is just a more defense savvy version of Watson.
This approach, however, might be the worst possible course for the Bulls to pursue. If they firmly believe that Rose will be not be back to at least 80% of his former self by next season, they should take a serious look at improving the team’s long term prospects. They will be paying eight figure salaries to three players – Noah, Boozer, Deng – next season, and the Bulls would just make the playoffs. Those are nightmare salaries for a non-contending team. Perhaps it would be better to miss the playoffs altogether and get a top-10 lottery pick. Perhaps they should look at possibilities to move Boozer and Deng, who have albatross contracts that would leave the Bulls with little financial wiggle room when Rose returns.
But Rose’s words preclude any such possibility. Don’t worry about me, Rose says in a recent video to his fans on Youtube, and the Bulls have no choice but to listen. They have to wait, and hope, and pray that their superstar returns. Because that’s all they can do now: wait.