Derrick Rose is back.
But don't take my word for it. Listen to Rose himself, via ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell: "I feel [like I'm] back. I'm not worried about anything. I'm reacting when I'm out there, just trying to win every scrimmage and just trying to push everybody to be better."
That's great news for both the superstar point guard and the Chicago Bulls. But it's rather disconcerting for the rest of the NBA, and it might cause some LeBron James to toss and turn like he's in Paranormal Activity.
After all, the reigning MVP hasn't been defeated in the voting since Rose tore his ACL, and the return of the floor general could seriously challenge his candidacy in 2013-14.
At the moment, Rose is still proceeding with caution. For now.
He's skipped a live scrimmage as "planned rest," but he hasn't experienced any soreness in the surgically repaired knee, according to the Chicago Tribune's K.C. Johnson. And once the season begins, it looks like he'll be good to go.
Forman on Rose: "As of today, there is no hard limit on his minutes." Adds it will be fluid, says he expects him to play in every exh. game.— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) September 27, 2013
Obviously the return of Rose has some major implications. He'll be a thorn in the side of the rest of the Eastern Conference from start to finish. But he'll also be in that aforementioned MVP race.
Can he actually win it, though?
One of the key aspects of winning the MVP award isn't just performance on the court. The storyline matters, as a compelling narrative can sway voters during a season in which the battle for supremacy is close.
From the opposite perspective, you can also call this "voter fatigue" if you so desire.
We've seen it pop up before and directly impact D-Rose.
Was he better than LeBron in 2010-11? Not a chance, but he was still named MVP, becoming the only player in the last 476 years (roughly) to beat LeBron in the voting.
From LeBron's viewpoint, voters simply got tired of his dominance, just as they did back in the late 1990s with Michael Jordan. There isn't an objective set of criteria for the MVP, which inherently allows opinion and subjectivity to factor into the equation.
The fallout from "The Decision" didn't help LeBron's case either.
But from Rose's perspective, he was the young, up-and-coming star point guard who was taking the league by storm. He captured the attention of the nation, and that story was able to trump whatever gap existed between the two players' performances.
This voter fatigue could pop up once more after the game's best player won back-to-back MVPs, two championships, a pair of Finals MVP and an Olympic gold medal. Change is more fun than stagnancy, even if the latter is correct.
Plus, Rose has one hell of a compelling narrative now.
The Bulls point guard just missed an entire season, sitting out during the playoffs even when he was medically cleared to play. He wasn't mentally ready to make an impact, and he might have felt a little bit undeserving if he'd stepped in and taken away a role from one of his teammates who actually helped earn the playoff berth in the first place.
But after an offseason filled with return-proclaiming commercials and interviews in which he claimed that he was better than ever, Rose is apparently ready to go. If he can help the Bulls improve upon last year's record and challenge the Miami Heat for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, that's all we'll end up talking about.
If Rose is even in the MVP conversation, it'll be awfully tough for the voters to fill out ballots with their minds instead of their hearts.
And sometimes, that's all it takes. Just ask Karl Malone.
Rose's Impact on the Chicago Bulls
In order to make a compelling case, though, Rose has to return better than ever. His game must look new and improved, showing off a potent jumper and just as much athleticism as he flashed on those relentless pre-injury drives to the rack.
But he also has to make a demonstrable impact on the Bulls. I'm talking a 2010-11 type of impact.
Take a look at how the offense fared (in terms of points per 100 possessions) that year with the point guard on and off the court, courtesy of Basketball-Reference:
When Rose was sitting down, those 100.9 points per 100 possessions would have left the team ranked No. 30 in terms of offensive output. Out of 30. The team struggled that much to score points. But when he played, the 111 points per 100 possessions would have left Chicago tied with the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 6.
And while the Bulls struggled to be as effective on defense when the MVP played, the offense he brought to the table trumped any defensive lapses. Plus a little something extra.
Rose has to make a similar level of impact in 2013-14 in order to be considered for the trophy again. Chicago must struggle without him on the court and look like an unstoppable machine when he plays.
You know, kind of like what a certain forward does for the Miami Heat.
What Does LeBron Have to Do?
Speaking of LeBron, he has to play a part in this as well. If he submits a season anything like he did in 2012-13, he's got the award all but wrapped up.
What the Miami superstar did last year was nothing short of sensational. In fact, I'd go so far as to submit it as a leading candidate for the unofficial "greatest season of all time" award, something that seems to have been reflected in the MVP voting.
Above you can see a visual representation of the submitted ballots.
Of the 121 voters, only Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe picked someone other than James. You can read his defense here, but just know that I vehemently disagree with it. LeBron should have become the first unanimous winner ever instead of joining Shaquille O'Neal in the all-but-one-vote club.
If 2013-14 is even remotely close to the level that 2012-13 reached, Rose's MVP candidacy will wilt like a flower that hasn't received any water in weeks.
Somehow, someway, LeBron has to take a step backward. Maybe it's an injury that knocks him out for an extended period of time. Maybe Dwyane Wade's OssaTron shock therapy works so well that he steals away some of LeBron's luster as the Miami alpha dog.
Maybe he just forgets about all the improvements he made as a jump-shooter and post-up player.
Whatever it is, LeBron can't be, well, LeBron if Rose hopes to win MVP.
Will it Happen?
Ah, now here's the most important question of all, and it's crucial to remember that there's a massive distinction between "will" and "can."
In its current form, the question is unanswerable.
There are just too many variables, and we have no idea exactly how Rose will look when he finally makes his post-ACL-tear debut. It seems likely that he'll be able to resume playing like an upper-tier starter, but there's a big difference between that status and truly being an MVP-caliber player.
But it certainly could happen.
Rose has the narrative working in his favor, or at least the potential for one. And while there's significantly less vitriol aimed at LeBron following two years of emerging on top of the NBA world, voter fatigue could still come into play.
Voters are just inherently apprehensive about handing out the MVP to the same player for three consecutive years. Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird all managed to earn the vote for three straight seasons, but they're the exceptions, not the rule.
Will Rose win MVP in 2013-14?
If LeBron did win, it would be his fifth award in six seasons, and that's just an unparalleled stretch of dominance. While Russell, Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar each collected (at least) five trophies, it took them seven, 11 and seven seasons to do so, respectively.
There's a lot pointing in Rose's favor, but there's also a lot of uncertainty working against him. Especially when you factor in Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and all the other superstars who—although unmentioned until now—will be vying for the right to displace LeBron from the top slot of the ballot as well.
So, is Rose's return enough to knock the Heat superstar off his MVP throne? Probably not.
But it can be.