There's a new edge to Derrick Rose. As he took the United Center floor for the first time since tearing his ACL in June 2012 on Wednesday night, you could see there is a chip on his shoulder.
This edge and chip is no doubt born from the mounds of criticism levied at him from the media and even the fans who adored him throughout the infant stages of his career.
Those baby steps rendered a Rookie of the Year award in 2009, a Most Valuable Player award in 2011 and renewed championship hope in his hometown. With the decision not to play on a knee he was less than comfortable with, many of the Bulls fans who cheered their favorite son turned on Rose.
Memes of Rose in suits were circulated all over the internet, and questions about his toughness were carelessly spread. Rose could have buckled under the immense pressure to please the fans of his organization and his home city. Instead, he did what was best for him long-term.
This defiance—whether it was his idea or the brainchild of a single or team of advisors—will ultimately be the best stance Rose takes in his career.
In all honesty, as valiant an effort as the Chicago Bulls put forth in the 2012 NBA playoffs, they weren't going to defeat the Miami Heat—even with an unsure Rose in the lineup. Coming back last season would have been a move Rose did simply to appease the fanbase.
This season represents the last and best chance this group of Bulls has at winning a championship. If the team can't get it done this season, the Bulls will be forced to rebuild around their young star. Essentially what Rose did last season was save his body unnecessary damage in what would have been a lost cause.
To put it plainly, he chose to live to fight another day.
The Bulls are among a group of five teams with legitimate aspirations to win an NBA championship this season, but if that doesn't happen, Rose could ultimately be the only major contributor remaining if the team decides to retool.
Luol Deng is headed for free agency. Carlos Boozer is a top candidate for the amnesty clause; and as beloved and effective as Joakim Noah is, he is highly-paid and coveted around the league. The Bulls could be tempted to move him.
Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson are role players who will also draw tons of interest. Gibson is solid, but his salary is a bit high considering he isn't an offensive force. His $7.9 million this season and escalating deal is tough to swallow when a lack of legitimate scoring options is the team's only real weakness.
Butler is underpaid, and teams will want to pluck him from the Bulls before he re-signs for a deal closer to what he's worth.
In short, major changes are on the horizon, and if Rose wanted to remain a figurehead—even for a new group of Bulls—he needed to ensure his body was right. From the looks of things this preseason, he's as good as new, if not better. In his United Center return, Rose had 22 points in just 22 minutes of action.
He told Nick Friedell of ESPN.com he was more explosive and that his vertical leap has improved by five inches. Let's not forget, Rose just turned 25 on Oct. 4. Back before top prospects automatically left school after their freshman or sophomore seasons, Rose would only be in his third year in the NBA.
Sitting out last season wasn't a waste; it was a year of preservation. Could he get injured again? Absolutely, but such is the risk in playing professional sports. That very risk is the reason Rose was right to defy anyone who suggested he should return before he was ready.
Players only have so many healthy years in their bodies. It is their responsibility to make the most of those opportunities.
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