Derrick Rose is about to embark on the most challenging year of his career, and he will be tested both mentally and physically by his opponents every step of the way.
He is coming off the season that wasn’t. He sat out the entire year, recuperating from a torn ACL. Media and fans scrutinized his decision to not return ad nauseum. And all the while he spent countless hours in rehab, or in the gym, processing it all.
Some local reporters challenged Rose’s “mental toughness,” but for the most part these were fringe scribes without regular access to the team, or national media, with even less.
His teammates’ defense of him, not only in just mouthing words, but in their vehemence, suggests any rumors you’ve heard about the team quietly harboring resentment is pure foolishness. Those who covered the team regularly never questioned their sincerity, and in fact often defended it.
Nor do his opponents use his delay in returning as a question of his competitive fire.
The kinds of tests he’ll face mentally have nothing to do with that nonsense. He does not need to prove his mental toughness. He’s already done that throughout his career, and those who don’t know it or acknowledge it do so only because they refuse to see it.
However, there will be mental tests that will be equal to the physical challenges that Rose will face this year.
In some ways they go much deeper, to the very core of Rose’s game. He’s always played with an abandon. That, coupled with his tremendous agility, quickness and explosiveness has made him one of the most exciting young players in the NBA and the youngest MVP in the history of the league.
Plays like this have defined his career: Driving to the rim, splitting entire defenses and finishing in some crazily unique fashion.
The problem is that in order for Rose to be able to do those types of things, he really does need his knee to be at “110 percent.” The physical demands on his knees exceed those of anyone in the NBA, even Russell Westbrook. Westbrook has his straight-away explosiveness, but doesn’t have the same degree of ability to cut
A 2008 study showed that the most common injury in high school sports was knee injuries to boys basketball players. This suggests that basketball players in general are already requiring more of their knees than any other athletes.
Therefore, it’s a reasonable conclusion that no athlete in the world has greater demands put on his knees than Rose. He not only needs to have his knee “110 percent” to be effective, he needs the confidence that it’s 110 percent in order for him to be effective.
His innate belief in his body might not be what it once was. That fearlessness with which he attacked the basket might no longer be there (and some would argue that wisdom should take its place—“discretion is the better part of valor” and all that).
Because of that, teams will be likely to play him differently than they have in the past.
Let’s use the play from above to illustrate how teams are likely to change the way they defend Rose. Look at the defensive attention Rose receives.
Mike Miller, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers are creating a veritable wall, and all three are focused almost entirely on Rose.
In part because of the injury, and in part because of changes to the team, that’s likely to change.
As the Bulls have added Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy, and Joakim Noah has improved his offensive game, teams won’t have the luxury of devoting the same degree of attention to Rose.
Formerly, the Bulls were more limited in other offensive options. The best one Rose has here is Deng, who is being guarded by LeBron James. Korver can hit the three, but Miller is close enough to him to challenge the shot. Since he has no fear of Korver taking him off the dribble though, he’s more focused on the trap.
The Heat are effectively saying, "you have only one player other than Rose who can score (Deng), and we’ve got the greatest player in the world on him, so beat us with Rose." In this case, Rose won, but in general, the Heat did.
Now take another look at the same screen grab with a different perspective. Replace Taj Gibson with the newly acquired Dunleavy, Kurt Thomas with Noah and Kyle Korver with Butler.
Suddenly, Rose has more options than he knows what to do with. He can pass it in to Noah on the cut. He can let Butler go around Miller for the alley-oop. He can drive it and kick to Dunleavy, Deng or Butler behind the three. Or he can just finish himself.
He can send it to Noah on the give and go for an alley-oop back to himself. Noah could set a baseline pick on James for Deng to get the shot. Noah could just stop and pop a little tornado shot, or try for a little hook. The list could go on but the point is made. Rose has lot more options than he used to.
Because of that, and the fact that Rose will be coming off his injury, opponents are going to change their approach to defending Chicago. Rather than saying, “Go ahead and beat us with everyone else,” they’re going to say, “Go ahead and beat us with Rose.”
The dynamics of risk and reward have changed. The risk of guarding Rose one-on-one is greater than the risk of leaving everyone else unguarded.
Teams are going to challenge Rose to challenge his knee. Rather than set up two or three player traps on him, they’re going to play him tighter and one-on-one with their best perimeter defender until he can prove that he can still go around whoever he wants to at will.
The physical challenge here is obvious. Either the knee will respond or it won’t. Either he’ll have the same burst or he won’t. The rehab is over a year in the making now, and the knee is as good as it’s going to get.
Rose will be challenged to prove that it’s still strong enough for him to get around elite defenders. However, even if he’s physically as strong as he used to be, there are still other psychological challenges.
The mental test is twofold. First there is the challenge of finding that previously mentioned innate confidence. Can he reflexively just “burst” like he used to, or will there be that split second of hesitation that allows defenses to recover? It appears that this is what he was waiting on before he returned, but it still needs to be established, even to himself, in a live game.
It won’t matter if the knee can take the same kind pressure that he used to put on it if he doesn’t, in the deepest recesses of his subconscious, expect it to. If he’s even slightly tentative in his drives, then teams will seize on that.
The second aspect is more related to what happens if the knee isn’t quite as good as it used to be. There has been a good deal of discussion about how he’s improved his mental grasp of the game and his shot. All those hours spent in the gym or watching tape will be tried too.
The second challenge is somewhat the opposite of the first. The former rests in him being able to play the same way he used to but not believing it. The latter is that he can’t play the way he used to but believes he can.
His adversaries will force him to excel above the neck rather than below it. He’ll need to prove that he can make the right pass or take the right shots. He’ll need to show that he can still make his teammates better and win with them, rather than just by dominating individually.
The way that Rose can create more opportunities for himself without that fraction of a second is by making jump shots, dissecting defenses with his passing game and playing within himself.
It’s going to be a tough line to toe. He’ll need to learn to have the same kind of confidence he used to have without being overconfident. His opponents will challenge him by trying to topple him either way.
But here’s the good news if you’re a Bulls fan. It doesn’t have to be either-or.
If it all clicks, then the Bulls are looking like they might not just be contenders, but perhaps even favorites. If he’s the same explosive Rose, with an improved jump shot and improved decision making, there is no limit to what this team can accomplish.