Hey, have you heard that Derrick Rose is back?
Of course you have, and if you haven't, I have no idea why you're wasting your time reading about the NBA, because you clearly don't care about professional basketball.
Rose's return to the Chicago Bulls lineup has been accompanied by an absolutely insane level of hype, and that makes it awfully difficult for the former MVP to live up to the high expectations.
But don't tell D-Rose that it'll be tough.
The point guard told ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell that, "I feel normal right now. I'm not worried about anything." He also revealed that the mental block preventing an earlier return is gone and that he has more explosiveness than ever before.
In fact, he even revealed that, "They tested my vertical—I increased it by 5 inches. I just didn't show it yet because there's no need to."
Well, that's not fair.
Rose doesn't need all 42 inches of his vertical, and I'd be a willing recipient of whatever extra he's willing to give up.
But on a more serious note, all of this matters. The dynamic floor general must have plenty of confidence, because he's got a long road in front of him if he hopes to live up to the massive hype.
Play Like He Used To
At the very least, Rose has to return to the level that he was at before the fateful injury against the Philadelphia 76ers. And that shouldn't be taken for granted, as he was playing so well that he was a near lock for any rational basketball fan's rankings of the top five players in the league.
During the 2011-12 season, the point guard averaged 21.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.7 blocks per game while healthy. He was quite clearly the driving force behind the Chicago offense.
Whenever he's been in the lineup, he's made a huge impact for the team's ability to score points. And that's been true throughout his career.
Notice a trend here? The Bulls offense has never been better when Rose has been on the bench, and that trend must be readily apparent throughout the 2013-14 campaign. Not just to those who check the numbers, but to those who believe strictly in the eye test as well.
Ideally, though, Rose gets even better.
He's never been a potent jump-shooter, and that needs to change in order for him to maximize his offensive talents. As adept as Rose is at getting to the rim even with defenders sagging off him, it would be absolutely terrifying to see what he could do with the proper level of respect.
Rose simply can't take a step backward in terms of his statistical production. There's been so much hype that he must meet the numerical expectations—meaning he must average more than 20 points and seven assists per game throughout the year.
There's not an easy way around this one.
Prior to his 32-point outing versus the Pacers, Rose was averaging 16 points and 2.7 assists per game, but that's not a bad thing. After all, he's returning to action for the first time in over a year. What's more encouraging is how he looks.
Plays like that indicate that Rose is ready to go once more. He isn't holding back, and the mental block created by his ACL injury has clearly been pushed aside.
He's ready to explode during the regular season. And yes, I'm just adding to the hype. At some point, the law of diminishing marginal returns has to come into play, right?
Challenge LeBron for MVP
Given the amount of excitement that has built up for Rose's return, anything short of an MVP award is going to be viewed as a disappointment. And while that's a nearly impossible task, it isn't for Rose.
After all, he's the only one to dethrone LeBron James over the last five years.
But how can that happen?
There are three factors that go into Rose's MVP campaign: statistical excellence, team-based dominance and the narrative.
We've already gone over the first part of the triad.
As for the second, the Chicago Bulls just have to challenge the Miami Heat for supremacy in the Eastern Conference. Take a look at how the two teams have fared ever since LeBron took his talents to South Beach.
Note that the 2011-12 wins are prorated to a full 82-game season:
When Rose was in the lineup, the Bulls emerged with the No. 1 seed in the East. Without him, they fell well short of the Heat, who also put all the pieces together during their ridiculous stretch of consecutive victories.
Can they get back to the top?
It's highly possible, especially because the Heat might end up taking the foot off the gas down the stretch. The No. 1 seed isn't as important to them, as they have to stay healthy and fresh for the inevitably deep postseason run.
And this works right into Rose's hands.
Right now, it appears as though there will be a four-way race for the top spot in the conference, although, I'm including the Brooklyn Nets in the race rather hesitantly. The Bulls, Heat and Indiana Pacers are the true contenders for the best record, and securing it will be vital to Rose's candidacy.
That also ties into the narrative.
Voters love a good story, and the return from a year off will certainly be played up as one. Between the allure of Rose jumping back up to the top of the totem pole and the effects of voter fatigue, the narrative could matter more this year than any other in recent memory.
Rose is certainly one of the premier candidates for the coveted award going into the 2013-14 season. But it's not enough to be a candidate.
Quick, name the top candidates for the 1992 MVP trophy.
Chances are, you can't name all the players who received a large number of votes, and it might be tough to remember who finished in second place (Clyde Drexler). But I bet you can tell me that Michael Jordan came out on top.
Rose is either going to be a winner or one of the losers. And based on the hype, being a winner is kind of important.
Beat the Miami Heat
Even Rose himself has acknowledged that the Heat are the biggest rivals for the Bulls, per Friedell.
But frankly, I don't care what happens on Oct. 29 when the Bulls and Heat open the regular season by squaring off in AmericanAirlines Arena. It doesn't matter to me what happens when Chicago makes its other trip to South Beach on Feb. 23. I don't care about the two contests (on Dec. 5 and March 9) between the teams in the United Center either.
Obviously, they're big games that will be fun to watch, but they don't ultimately determine whether or not Rose can live up to the hype. It's not the end of the world if Chicago goes 0-4 against Miami during those four aforementioned contests, although doing so would certainly put a damper on his MVP candidacy.
What matters is the playoffs.
Doesn't it feel as though we're gearing up for an epic battle between Chicago and Miami, one that would surely go seven games and feature multiple overtime periods? At some point, these two squads should get to play each other, whether it happens in the Eastern Conference Semifinals or Finals.
If they do, the Bulls simply must emerge victoriously, or else Rose's season will ultimately be disappointing. If they don't, then Chicago must take advantage of the postseason upset and become the representatives for the conference.
It's this part of the criteria that matters most.
As Rose told Friedell:
That's our No. 1 goal is winning the title. We're not worried about anything else. We're not worried about what people say about us or what's going on on the outside. We're just about the Bulls and how good we can get every day.
Let's say that Rose doesn't put up the MVP-caliber numbers we're used to seeing, and he doesn't even receive a single vote for the top individual award. He'd still be living up to the hype if he could steer the Bulls to a title for the first time since Michael Jordan's final shot in a red uniform.
But even if he averages 30 points and 10 assists, winning the MVP in unanimous fashion, he'd still be coming up short if Chicago bowed out against the Heat one more time.
Rose is under a lot of pressure during the 2013-14 campaign. He doesn't just get to ease his way back into action, as the expectations of an entire city will be weighing down on him whenever he tries to elevate off that formerly injured leg.
He can still live up to the hype, but it won't be easy.
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