Derrick Rose has been under pressure before, but never like this.
When the Chicago Bulls take on the Miami Heat in the 2013-14 NBA season opener on Oct. 29 (per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel), Rose will return to the court for the first time in more than a year. When he does, he'll carry with him the lingering fears about his own health, the hopes of a city and the ability to shift the league's balance of power.
So even if his surgically repaired left knee holds up just fine, Rose's back will be strained under the weight of those expectations.
The Death of Self-Doubt
Last year, Rose infamously delayed his recovery long after he was cleared by doctors because he simply wasn't sure that his knee was ready for a return to game action. He wasn't confident.
No matter how many rigorous workouts or full-contact practices Rose has amassed over the past few months, he still can't possibly be sure of his knee's health until he tests it out in an actual NBA game against opponents who'd love nothing more than to embarrass him.
Against the Heat, he'll have the chance to justify his decision to write off the 2012-13 season. If Rose returns at full strength, he'll be vindicated.
But what if he doesn't? What if he can't cut quite so violently, elevate so powerfully or attack so aggressively? What if Rose is good, but not great?
Those questions will certainly crop up in Rose's mind as tip-off nears, no matter how much confidence he outwardly projects. Because he won't really know if he's still the same player until he executes the kind of jarring jump stop he pulled off so many times before his ACL exploded.
At some point in the first quarter, he'll find out.
And before anyone brings up the notion that Rose could actually return to the court for the first time in one of the Bulls' preseason games, just stop it. Even if he does suit up for those contests, he won't push himself to the limit.
Exhibition games aren't worth the risk.
Rose certainly didn't do himself any favors by recently telling CNN's Pedro Pinto that he was the best player in the NBA, especially when James, regarded by the overwhelming majority of basketball-watching humans as the game's greatest, will be on the court to try to prove him wrong.
On the bright side, Rose's statement is a pretty good indicator that he's got most of his confidence back. The former MVP will need every last drop of self-assuredness when he tests himself for the first time on opening night.
The Fate of a Team
In the 2010-11 season, the Chicago Bulls won 62 games, more than any other team in the league. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign, they tied for the league lead with 50 wins. They also boasted the best defense in the NBA in both of those seasons.
Perhaps most impressively, the Bulls managed to improve their offensive efficiency from 12th in 2010-11 to fifth in 2011-12, thanks largely to Rose's growth from an athletically gifted attacker into a full-fledged floor general.
Suffice it to say, when Rose returns on opening night, his mere presence in the starting lineup will immediately elevate expectations for the Bulls. And those expectations won't focus on a moderate climb back up the playoff ladder or a few more measly wins.
Fans around the league will immediately expect the Bulls to reclaim their status as one of the very best teams in the NBA.
Last season, the Bulls grew without Rose, relying even more heavily on a dogged defense and the raw effort head coach Tom Thibodeau demanded. But for all of its grit, Chicago lacked a defined leader—not to mention scoring punch.
In spurts, Joakim Noah could inspire. In spurts, Nate Robinson could score. But nobody on the roster had the capacity to engineer the kind of sustained attack that Rose could. Fair or not, Rose will be viewed as the missing piece of the puzzle, the final ingredient in the Bulls' championship recipe.
For what it's worth, he might be exactly that.
Jimmy Butler grew by leaps and bounds in Rose's absence, ascending rapidly into the ranks of the league's most promising two-way wings. Noah also took his effort and intensity to another level. If Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer can avoid slight age- and injury-related dips in performance, it's entirely possible that Rose will elevate Chicago to truly elite status.
As if the personal stakes weren't high enough, Rose will also play on opening night with the fate of a team weighing heavy on his shoulders.
The Love of a City
No city has a stronger bond with its star than Chicago has with Rose.
He's the homegrown kid made good, the one that made it out of the streets of Englewood to lead Simeon Academy to the first ever back-to-back championships in the history of the Chicago Public League. He's the soft-spoken star who embodies the toughness of life in the dark corners of the nation's second city.
Rose is Chicago.
And that's why he can't fail in his comeback, not after the way he made some of his hometown fans question that toughness by delaying his return. The doubters were in the minority, but they were there last season.
As the symbol of an entire metropolis trying to represent his city, Rose will be under immense pressure to perform in his first game back. If he fails, all of Chicago will feel like it's failing with him.
The Future of a League
The Heat are the NBA's two-time defending champs, but the Bulls—with a fully healthy Rose—are among the teams best equipped to prevent Miami from making it three straight titles.
In Deng, Butler and Taj Gibson, Chicago has a variety of able bodies to throw at James on the wing and in the post. Noah gives the team a big man with the quickness necessary to help on drives and recover to bother Chris Bosh's automatic jumper.
Even without Rose, the Bulls put up a fight against the Heat last year—literally, in the case of Nazr Mohammed. But battered, undermanned and out-gunned, Chicago fell to the Heat in five games. The defeat had plenty to do with Miami's overall dominance, but more specifically, the Bulls couldn't score.
Without Rose, Chicago posted an offensive rating of 94.9 points per 100 possessions in five playoff games against the Heat, a figure that would have ranked dead last in the NBA regular season by a mile (per NBA.com).
Rose adds a new, vital dimension to the Bulls in their quest to knock of the hated Heat. Remember, Noah vocalized Chicago's ill will toward Miami in his now infamous "Hollywood as hell" barb toward the flashy Heat.
These teams aren't fans of one another.
The Bulls know they've got a long way to go to beat Miami. Even at full strength in 2011, Rose's MVP season, they fell to the Heat in the playoffs. But that defeat puts even more pressure on Rose, who took the loss personally and heaped the blame entirely onto himself.
In the aftermath of that series defeat, Rose told K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
"Everything is on me. Turnovers, missed shots, fouls. Learn from it. That's all I can do. The series is over with. I wasn't tired. I was just making dumb decisions, and it cost us the game."
That was a very inexperienced Bulls team. After two full seasons of growth, they'll be far more prepared for the Heat this time around.
Maybe the Heat are in line to make another run to the Finals. Or maybe the Bulls are ready to knock them off the throne. In keeping with the theme, Rose's opening night performance will go a long way toward answering that question as well.
Everything will be hanging in the balance for Derrick Rose on Oct. 29. He'll be buried under an unprecedented amount of internal and external pressure.
Can he be the player he once was? Will he elevate his team? Will he make his city proud? Does he have what it takes to wrest control of the NBA from the tyrannical Heat?
All of those questions will be burning in Derrick Rose's mind when he hears his name announced in the starting lineup on opening night. When the smoke from the pregame pyrotechnics clears, he'll get his first chance to reignite his career, spark his team and set the NBA on fire.