Certainly, there is an array of reasons to doubt so, not the least of which is the last time Rose finished a playoff series, it was with superfriend LeBron James blocking his shot and sending the Bulls packing.
Yet, the NBA is not a static world where everything stays the same from one year to the next. Players age (for better or worse). Supporting casts change. Offseason work improves areas of weakness. Injuries happen. All of that is true with Rose.
He just turned 25, and as such, he’s on the right side of the peak age of 27.
However, the last time we saw him consistently play was in January 2012, almost two years ago. Because of a litany of minor injuries that ultimately led to his torn ACL (which is now, finally, history), he was in and out of the lineup for most of the second half of the 2012 season and absent entirely from it last year.
During that span, he’s supposedly been putting lots of work into his game, his jump shot and his basketball IQ.
Since then, the big question has been whether Rose would be able to get back to his MVP form, and after a 20-minute display in the Bulls' preseason opener against the Indiana Pacers, the answer to that question is a resounding yes.
Certainly, he’s not there yet. But there were clear signs he will be. The essence of Rose—his speed and explosiveness—was there.
He exploded to the rim to rebound his own missed shot, stealing it from Roy Hibbert, then putting it back to make his first field goal. He crossed over Paul George, one of the best defenders in the league, at another point.
Most tellingly, there was a series of plays that demonstrated he is going to be the same. On successive possessions, he raced the ball downcourt on fast breaks to get the easy layup, putting his speed on full display.
The Pacers, getting the wake-up call, were quick to try to stop him the next time, triple-teaming him as he motored down the court.
Luol Deng, trailing on the play, pulled up to Rose’s right, just outside the elbow of the three-point line. Rose hit him for the no-look pass, and Deng drained the three.
That’s the essence of what makes Rose special, both his ability to take the ball inside for the score and the vision and awareness to hit his teammates with the outlet pass when defenses collapse on him. That’s the makings of a championship point guard.
There is talk about “pure” point guards and “scoring” point guards, with the former being advertised as superior to the latter. That’s a bit contrary to history, though.
I like to say there are some point guards who are race car drivers and some who are just race cars. Some point guards (i.e. Rajon Rondo) have the ability to “drive” an offense. Some, such as Rose, have the ability to be the offense.
Then, there are a select few from history who have the ability to do both. Players like Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson could do either. Counting the regular season and the postseason, Johnson topped 30 points 105 times. Thomas hit it 118 times. It’s not like they weren’t scorers.
The championship point guards “drove” the cars for the bulk of the game but then became the car when they needed to. It’s the mix of passing and scoring that is what made them able to lead their teams to championships.
I compared Rose to Thomas and Johnson in terms of performance for a player who has both skill sets, looking at their winning percentages when they hit the benchmarks of 20 points on .450 shooting and passed for seven assists, per the Game Finder on Basketball-Reference.
Here are the winning percentages of all three players when they hit those three numbers, as well as Rose’s specific percentage just in the Tom Thibodeau era (2011 to present). The games include both regular and postseason for all three players.
As you can see, when he hits those numbers, the Bulls have similar success to those championship teams. Now, look how regularly each player hits those numbers.
Rose hits those marks just as frequently as Thomas or Johnson, and his teams win at the same rate, particularly in the last three years. In fact, in the 2011 and 2012 seasons when he reaches them, counting the regular and postseason, the Bulls are 29-2.
And here are his averages.
He has an anemic field-goal percentage in both wins and losses, but there is one game that throws off the numbers a bit. On April 12, 2012, Rose, coming back early from injury, was rusty and made only one of his 13 attempts. The Bulls won anyway.
During the other four games, Rose played close to the winning formula mentioned above, averaging a .448 field-goal percentage with the 6.3 assists and 28.8 points.
When the Bulls have struggled with Miami in the past, the issue has been pretty simple. It’s not that they can’t stop James. Sure, he scores fine, but the rest of the Heat don’t. They’ve averaged just 92.4 points against the Bulls, which is 3.2 points fewer than they’ve scored against anyone else and 8.7 fewer than they’ve scored overall.
The problem is on offense. Derrick Rose gets shut down, and when he does, the Bulls have had no answers.
Don’t just take my word for it, take Wade’s, who told me in an interview two years ago, when I asked him about what kind shooting guard the Bulls needed.
As a point guard, when you have to score so much and have to make every big shot and have to make all the passes, eventually it takes a toll on you throughout the season no matter how phenomenal you are. So…just someone who can come in and take some of that pressure away. That's why I was excited not only to play with my friend, but excited to play with a guy like LeBron, because it takes some of that pressure away from having to do it year after year after year. It saves you, your body.
While the Bulls may not have gotten “that guy” in the singular they may have gotten him in the aggregate, and that was on display in their pre-season opener.
Mike Dunleavy put the ball on the floor a couple of times, and created some shots for himself.
Jimmy Butler showed vastly improved handles and an ability to create points for himself, especially by getting to the free throw line, where he made nine of 12 attempts. When Rose played alongside Kirk Hinrich, he was able to play off the ball more.
And then of course, there was Taj Gibson, who was on another offensive plane than in the past. He was showing new post-up moves, hitting baseline jumpers and throwing down rim-bending dunks.
A more svelte Luol Deng was also more aggressive and quicker than we’ve seen him in a while. He was firing up mostly good shots, even if they weren’t going in at a very good rate. Rookie Tony Snell’s jumper is pure, even if none of them went either.
And on top of all that, Joakim Noah didn’t even play.
Sure, it was just preseason, but it was clear the basic makings of the best offensive supporting cast Rose has had is there. His ride, so to speak, has been pimped.
So now, the onus is on Rose. Previously, he had an excuse: You can’t win a lot of races with a stock Ford Pinto while the competition is driving a fully-loaded Corvette.
Things are a little different now, and that means Rose’s mentality must be on setting up his teammates first, then attacking with his own offense when that fails. It doesn’t matter if the car is a ‘Vette if you still drive it like a Pinto.
If Rose has that mindset, and can put up around 20 points and seven dimes a contest against the Heat, while shooting at least .450, the Bulls will be able to beat them. The kryptonite needed here isn’t gaudy numbers. It’s efficient scoring that comes while involving his teammates. If he does that, the Bulls can get past the Heat, and whomever they meet in the NBA Finals.