The last time Derrick Rose was healthy for a full season, he walked away with an MVP award.
Based on what we've seen of his return so far—and considering what else D-Rose might yet have in store—there's every reason to believe he'll be right back in the race for the NBA's highest individual honor in 2013-14.
Rose logged 20 minutes in his preseason return Oct. 5, scoring 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Hardly an eye-popping set of numbers by prospective MVP standards, the statistics from the Chicago Bulls' preseason victory over the Indiana Pacers don't come close to touching on what really mattered in the contest.
Rose appeared fully healthy.
Somehow able to keep more than a year's worth of pent-up energy from causing him to spontaneously combust, Chicago's point guard played it cool for the first few minutes of his return. Rose was content to facilitate, move the ball and generally ease his way back into the flow.
But after that initial breaking-in period, he showcased the unparalleled burst and raw aggression that made him one of the most dangerous rim-attackers in the league before his injury. His very first basket answered a lot of questions.
Note the fearless way Rose takes the ball into the teeth of the defense. Clearly, his willingness to put his body in harm's way hasn't diminished.
Stymied by a wall of Pacers, Rose erupts off the floor to corral his own missed shot before any of the assembled defenders can recover. That's precisely the kind of second-effort play that made Rose so dangerous two years ago.
If all we saw of his first game back was that single sequence, we could probably be confident that D-Rose is mentally ready and physically able to do everything he could two years ago.
Fortunately, Rose gave us plenty more evidence of why he's ready to toss his hat into the MVP ring again.
A New Look
Chicago was a one-dimensional offensive team last season. It was predictable, slow and, frankly, boring to watch. Absent Rose, the Bulls walked the ball up the floor, ranking 26th in the league in pace, per ESPN. And aside from the occasional outbursts from the departed Nate Robinson, there was never any real dynamism.
With Rose back in charge, the Bulls offense took on a new dimension. He pushed the tempo against Indiana, turning Chicago's signature defensive tenacity into opportunities to break out in transition.
Even when the Pacers recovered in time to stop Rose from finishing coast-to-coast drives, his presence in half-court sets transformed Chicago's offense into a much more balanced, fluid operation.
Defenders kept an eye on Rose at all times, shading toward him in a way that allowed for freer off-ball movement everywhere else. And it appears that Tom Thibodeau has added wrinkles to the Bulls' offense. It was just one preseason game, but Chicago rarely featured the kind of decisive ball movement and weak-side cutting action we saw it use against Indiana.
According to what Thibodeau told Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, that's by design:
Well, I think the important thing is to be well-balanced. Obviously, you want to get as many easy baskets as you can, so how do you get them? The obvious way is the fast break, but there’s also moving the ball quickly, making quicker decisions and getting your body in motion, which also leads to second shots.
Everyone remembers how effective the Bulls were on offense in Rose's last two seasons (they ranked 12th in efficiency in 2010-11 and fifth in 2011-12, per NBA.com), so just imagine how much more dangerous Rose's Bulls could be with a smarter plan of attack.
The lessons of the immediate past, meaning "the ones we learned in 20 minutes against the Pacers," are important in the discussion of Rose's potential MVP candidacy this year. But the more distant past is even more informative.
We know that when D-Rose is at full strength, he's automatically in the running for the award.
The last time he played more than half of a season, he won it.
Granted, he'll have to contend with LeBron James, who played at a level nobody could match a year ago. And Kevin Durant might post some surreal numbers if Russell Westbrook isn't physically ready to help out when he comes back a few weeks into the regular season.
But Rose has already been an MVP, and against the Pacers, he looked every bit as good as the guy who dominated the league in 2010-11.
More in Store?
Rose used his 20-minute cameo to show that he's back to his old self, but we might not have even seen everything he has to offer.
For one thing, the Bulls didn't take the court against the Pacers with a fully healthy roster; Joakim Noah sat out with a groin injury. Noah figures to benefit immensely from the Bulls' new offense, as his excellent passing was essentially the only reason Chicago managed to score at a respectable rate last season.
More movement and better spacing will allow him to do even more of what he does best, and what's good for Noah is also good for Rose. The big man's ability to run the offense is going to alleviate pressure and allow the Bulls point guard to work away from the ball more than ever.
In addition, we still haven't seen all of the new goodies Rose says he's added to his game.
He was 0-of-5 from outside the lane against Indiana, but the supposedly re-tooled jumper he's been talking about at least looked better. If he can knock down a few more perimeter shots, he'll be able to score in a way that doesn't put his body at risk.
The other thing Rose claims to have added is even more athleticism. According to Nick Friedell of ESPN, Rose says he's bouncier than ever:
"I think I jump higher. I think coming into the league I was at 37 [inches vertical jump] and they tested my vertical at [a training facility], I'm probably at like a 42 [inches], so I'm jumping a little bit higher."
So, just to be clear, we've now got a version of Derrick Rose who jumps five inches higher than the one who did this to Goran Dragic:
OK, that'll probably get the attention of MVP voters.
You know what else pleases the MVP decision-makers? Wins. And the Bulls could be in a position to pile up a ton of them.
Chicago looked like a team on a mission against Indiana, and that was just a preseason game. The Pacers are an excellent team in their own right, fully healthy and very much in play as a potential championship contender.
But the Bulls simply out-worked them.
If the intensity Chicago showed in beating a very good team carries over to the regular season, another 60-win season is well within reach. The Bulls have collected more victories than any other NBA team in Rose's last two seasons on the court, so don't be surprised if they wind up leading the league in wins for the third time in four years.
Another thing voters love is a nice jump in efficiency. Maybe it's their way of showing the NBA world that they're keeping up with the analytics revolution.
For example, James' counting numbers stayed largely the same last year, but everybody went nuts over his sudden improvements from the field and long range. Miami won 66 games in 2012-13 as James put together a remarkably economical campaign. As a result he collected his second consecutive MVP award.
Efficiency matters in the NBA, and Rose's could make a leap this year that voters would be hard-pressed to ignore.
Think about it; everything we've discussed so far points in that direction. The jumper should be improved, Chicago will run an offense that doesn't require him to take so many bailout shots, and he'll play alongside the best supporting cast he's ever had.
All of those factors should contribute to making this Rose's most efficient season ever, and the voters are going to love that.
Past and Future
This season will feature one of the tightest MVP races in memory. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are going to be prime contenders, but guys like Chris Paul and James Harden are suddenly in the mix as well. So it'd be crazy to crown Rose at this juncture.
But the combination of his good health and an ideal situation in Chicago certainly help his chances.
Rose needed just a portion of one preseason game to remind us of what he was, and from the looks of it, we're poised on the brink of a season in which he'll show us how much more he can become.