When Derrick Rose ended last season with an agonizing tear to his ACL, it was not only an injury that affected that season, but one the echoes of which still reverberate today. The city of Chicago yet waits for the return of its champion, and until then, have nothing but rumors to feed on.
It was a tragedy for the Bulls and their fans that was two years in the making.
Following a heartbreaking series loss to the Miami Heat in the 2011 playoffs, the Bulls set themselves to clear that hurdle in 2012. It was a goal they aspired to and fought for through the offseason and season.
It was not a goal without obstacles. They encountered injury after injury, including one after another to their superstar. In all, they played a mere five games with their starting five.
Yet they competed heartily, even going 18-9 in games that Rose didn’t play (and 32-7 when he did). They finished the regular season with the No. 1 overall seed in the postseason. They were finally together and healthy for the opening of the postseason.
For 46 minutes, they blistered the Philadelphia 76ers in the opening game. Their offense looked as alive and sparkling as it ever had, with Rose combining his extraordinary explosiveness and vision together with his new, greater appreciation for the nuances of the game and improved basketball IQ.
The Bulls looked unstoppable, and fans believed, for the first time since the Jordan years, Chicago could win a title.
Then in that one, solitary horrifying instant, not only that season, but also the following one, was lost.
When this season started, fans held little hope.
Management had let go much of the popular “Bench Mob,” including the likes of C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer and John Lucas. It traded away Kyle Korver and let the Houston Rockets snap Omer Asik out from under its feet in free agency.
The new group of players—Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson, Kirk Hinrich and Nazr Mohammed—seemed questionable, low-cost substitutions for a group which had played so well together. The loss of talent and chemistry, along with their MVP made it hard for Bulls fans to anticipate the season.
The debate was on concerning Derrick Rose. Should the Bulls try to win and hope for a playoff spot with the belief that a return by Derrick Rose in the second half of the season could give them hope for a title run?
Or should they “Tim Duncan” it, referring to the San Antonio Spurs' 1996-97 season, when they played without the services of David Robinson for most of the season, winning only 20 games—and the lottery, and with it the rights to draft Tim Duncan. The pairing led to an NBA title two years later.
Many Bulls fans felt that the best way for Chicago to land a second superstar was to similarly tank. They also felt that “rushing” Derrick Rose back from injury wasn’t worth the “risk.” Why not give him the full season to recover since the Bulls had no chance of winning?
Tanking was not a thing which coach Tom Thibodeau knows how to do, though.
A funny thing happened on the way to disaster.
The Bulls started winning. The new acquisitions started playing better than they were supposed to. Marco Belinelli started playing outbursts of defense. Carlos Boozer was playing like he was back in Utah. He even won Eastern Conference Player of the Week once.
Little Nate Robinson, a perpetual talent with maturity issues, was getting coached and making better decisions. He still tended to fire up shots, but he was increasingly firing off a pass. He won Eastern Conference Player of the Week too.
Jimmy Butler, who received little playing time but looked promising in his rookie year, surpassed every expectation of him, proving himself to be a bona fide starter in the league.
The defense was positively “Thibodoean.” The Bulls were winning.
Then things started getting ugly. The Bulls had gotten where they were, not by sheer talent, but by sheer determination and extended minutes. The toll had to be paid, and the Injury Reaper can be a nasty collector.
The shrouded villain swept through the team like the Chicago wind, exacting payment from Richard Hamilton (32 games missed,) Kirk Hinrich (22 games,) Taj Gibson (17 games,) Joakim Noah (16 games,) Luol Deng (seven games) and Carlos Boozer (three games). In all there have been 98 games missed by rotation players, and that’s not even counting Derrick Rose.
Since their remarkable start, the Bulls are just 15-20, in large part due to the massive injury hit they’ve taken. They’ve had their Rose-less starting five just one time in those 35 games. All things considered, treading water here is a remarkable accomplishment.
In the course of that time, the trade deadline came and went, and when it did Derrick’s brother, Reggie, made a controversial statement which suggested that Derrick wasn’t coming back this season because he wasn’t happy with the way the way the team handled the deadline.
The exact phrasing of Reggie’s quote came with a twist of irony, especially viewed in retrospect, "It's frustrating to see my brother play his heart and soul out for the team and them not put anything around him.”
Since Reggie spoke, Derrick has been cleared to play by team physicians. He has been seen at most games, working out and working out hard—leaving many fans wondering why it is that he hasn’t returned yet.
It seems almost impossible, but there is a growing segment in Chicago that is frustrated with Rose for his failure to watch his team pour their heart and soul out, and not come back to be that "someone" to put around them.
Now, Chicago fans have been divided into three primary groups. The “Wait-Until-Next-Year’s,” the “Must-Return-Now’s” and the “Shut-Up-and-Leave-the-Man-Alone’s,” who feel that Rose should return when he’s ready, when he feels he’s ready, and not until he feels ready.
Bulls Nation has become divided.
It seems there’s not much way for this saga to end happily. The Bulls are spiraling to close the season, having lost six of their last 10, in spite of playing a sub-par schedule and a hit-and-miss lineup. And Rose is always one step from returning.
Fans of all types have seemed to be reconciled that Rose won’t be returning until next season, yet there’s the one morsel of hope which remains.
There just seems something wrong with the return happening in Brazil next preseason. That’s not how the story is supposed to end. The alternate ending is so much more alluring.
Gibson and Noah are getting healthy, and look like they should able to make a playoff run. The Bulls have beneficially slipped to the sixth seed, from the Miami side of the bracket to the New York side, a team they’ve beaten four times in four tries this year.
How perfectly poetic would it be for the season that was supposed to be going somewhere, but tragically ended by Rose’s injury, to be followed up by a season that was supposed to go nowhere end triumphantly with his return?
That’s the stuff you make movies out of (and yes, Kevin Hart would have to play Nate Robinson)
Blame the Adidas-driven image of Rose restoring hope to the adulation of his hometown fans. We need this. Only that will put the “united” back in United Center.