Absence doesn't necessarily make an NBA player grow stronger.
Extended truancies boost anticipation, not immediate strength. Fans and pundits long for returns from injury, building up player arrivals and the future performances that should come with it. We see it every year, including this one.
Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook are the first two superstars to return from serious physical ailments this season. One's path back to the court became an exhausting process; the other's was abrupt and downright shocking.
Westbrook returned for the Oklahoma City Thunder's home opener against the tanking-but-fabulous Phoenix Suns, much to the delight of the home crowd and, as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explains, the dismay and fright of 14 other teams in the Western Conference.
Less than a week into the season, Westbrook wasn't supposed to be ready. Initial reports had him missing the first four to six weeks of the regular season. Ensuing updates said there was a possibility he would return in two. Then, a mere five days into Oklahoma City's 2013-14 campaign, he was back.
Rose's return wasn't as sudden. He sat out all of last season after tearing his ACL during the playoffs in 2012. Finally. That was the word used to describe him suiting up.
Two superstars. Two different injuries, two separate returns. One goal: regain peak form as quickly and seamlessly as possible.
More than a year after going down, Rose was back and, apparently, better than ever.
"I think I’m a lot quicker, a lot more explosive, and I think I’m gonna go this year without that many nagging injuries, just trying to prevent it by stretching and doing all the things I have to do to take care of my body," he told SLAM's Adam Figman.
Preseason basketball acted as a forum for which Rose to prove he wasn't kidding. He notched 20.7 points and five assists while shooting 44 percent from deep through seven contests, leading his Chicago Bulls to a perfect exhibition record.
Excitement over preseason performances is often tapered, and justifiably so. Those six to eight games are meaningless, a time for teams to experiment with seldom-used prospects and rest superstars.
But this was Rose dominating. His performance couldn't be cast aside. A career 31 percent three-point shooter was draining treys at an insanely high clip while also absorbing contact and devouring defenses the way he always had. That had to mean something.
Regular-season play hasn't been smooth sailing, though. Rose's motor is clearly there. At times, his confidence is too. His game-winner against the New York Knicks was a typical Rose moment. The shot attempt wasn't ideal, and Tyson Chandler's coverage was strong, but he made it work like he had for four years prior.
Mostly, though, he's struggled. Through three games, he's averaging 14.3 points and 4.3 assists on 28.8 percent shooting, all of which would be career lows.
Take a look at how his current numbers compare to his first four seasons in the league:
Although it's only been three games, Rose isn't faring as well as originally hoped or even expected. That improved shooter we saw in the preseason? Gone. Despite attempting a career-high five bombs a game, Rose's 26.7 percent clip currently ties his second-lowest mark ever.
Rose is also turning the ball over at an unprecedented rate for himself. His turnover percentage through three contests is 23.2, essentially meaning he's coughing the rock up on a quarter of his possessions.
Snap judgments are useless in this type of situation. Just because Rose isn't himself doesn't mean he won't be. Perhaps soon enough, he will be. But for him to close the gap existing between his production now and prior to his injury, he has a lot of work to do.
Below is the percent deficit he's currently created in each statistical category:
Let's not blow this out of proportion. Or call me a hater. I prefer "realist."
Rose isn't "back" yet. Not really. Or even close to really. So much about his game is different or not as effective, it's clear the path back to dominance isn't paved with cotton candy and cuddly bunnies.
Something is still off. Be it his health or confidence level, something's missing. If there wasn't, the Bulls wouldn't be a plus-7.7 per 48 minutes with Rose off the court and a minus-10 with him on thus far, per NBA.com (account login required). Once more, see for yourself how that compares to his career numbers:
Don't let the fact that it's early cloud the related fact that Rose has a long way to go. Longer than anyone foresaw after watching him during the preseason.
"I would blame tonight on me," said Rose following Chicago's loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, per the Associated Press (via ESPN). "Turnovers, missed shots, miscommunication -- I just couldn't get in my groove."
His groove is still nowhere to be found, and if his start to the season is an accurate indication of where he's at, it's going to be quite a while before he finds it.
Before Derrick Rose is Derrick Rose again.
One game can mean more than you think.
In his season debut, Westbrook went for 21 points on 5-of-16 shooting to go along with seven assists. He also got to the foul line 14 times.
For what it's worth (a lot), here's how his first game of the year compared to his numbers over the last five seasons:
Most of those are numbers you would expect from Westbrook, the explosive point guard who relies more on his athleticism than he does accuracy. His field-goal percentage wasn't a thing of beauty, but when is it ever?
Generally, Westbrook was himself. Close to it, at least.
Bleacher Report's Will Carroll spoke to Dr. Neal ElAttrache, and Will provided some more context to Westbrook's recovery:
Dr. EllAttrache performed the second repair on Westbrook's meniscus at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic.
Westbrook damaged the previous repair during his rehab. It's an uncommon but real risk with any rehab. The fix has held this time and ElAttrache gave his final clearance of Westbrook over the weekend before Westbrook's debut, in consultation with the Thunder medical staff.
The operations done were an interesting long-term strategy. The more common meniscectomy could have had Westbrook back more quickly, perhaps even in time for the later rounds of the playoffs, but could have caused future problems inside the knee. With the repair, Westbrook should quickly get back to his normal physical abilities.
Here's a breakdown of the percent difference between his production against the Suns and his previous five seasons:
Now, here's how that looks next to Rose's gaps in the same categories from before:
Don't hate the graphs or the numbers; hate the sample size. But also know the sample sizes are similar. It's been only one game for Westbrook and three for Rose. Neither span stands to define the season. Not yet.
Westbrook moved well in his debut, constantly attacking. Like usual. He wasn't resorting to jumpers; he was driving. More than 62 percent of his shots came at the rim, and while Rose has yet to drop 20 points or dish out six-plus assists, Westbrook opened his season by doing both.
"I just missed some easy ones but that will come," Westbrook said, per the AP (via ESPN) after Oklahoma City's win over Phoenix. "I'm able to do what I want. I could be better but that's all right."
Westbrook could be better. Somehow, we find ourselves saying this every season. He could be more efficient. More selfless. Take better shots. Wear clothes that aren't patterned in ducks, swans or geese.
That's the Westbrook we've come to know and expect—infuriatingly confusing, but evidently effective.
The same Westbrook we saw against Phoenix.
This isn't about who's better; it's about who's better off. About who's closer to themselves.
Ask me which point guard I would prefer to build a team around, provided they were fully healthy. Go ahead. Do it. I'd say Rose every time.
If that was the question we were attempting to answer here, I'd say the same damn thing. No disrespect to Westbrook intended. A healthy Rose is just better.
Right now, it's Westbrook who's better off.
One game means little for this season's trajectory. His Thunder have 78 left. Anything between Game 4 and Game 82 can happen, for the better or worse.
But it's Westbrook who didn't have a preseason and still measured up to his former self in just one game. Rose was absent longer and the excess of rust is understandable, but through three games, the Bulls have yet to outscore their opponents with him on the floor once. Not even in their win against the Knicks.
By season's end, if Rose is Rose and Westbrook is Westbrook, there won't be a question as to who's better. Rose is a former MVP and arguably a top-three star when he's right. He's just not right, or as close to right as Westbrook.
Which player will return to form first?
"That's expected," Westbrook said of his struggles, per the AP. "I'm not expected to come back and be bionic man. I'm just going to work my way through it."
So will Rose. He'll work through the mental and physical barriers currently impeding him. When he does, he'll be the same. He'll be himself.
It will just take him longer to get there than it will Westbrook.