If you haven't already heard the news and you're a Chicago Bulls fan, you better sit down first. Nick Friedell of ESPNChicago.com tweeted that Derrick Rose suffered a "minor" right hamstring injury in Monday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. But don't worry, it could be worse. It could have been his knee.
The Bulls won the game to even their record at 3-3, but the loss of their MVP point guard is a substantial setback for a team that has been underwhelming to start the season. If the injury is very minor, then they can continue to jell as a team after a short absence for Rose. But the more games he sits out, the more it harms the offense.
Not only do the Bulls have even less depth in their backcourt than last year, but the offense has not improved much from last season even with Rose in the lineup—call them regrowing pains. The starters need 15 or 20 games together to establish their chemistry, and anything beyond this "minor" tweak to Rose's hamstring would spell big trouble for their season.
Rose was nearing the end of a middling game against Cleveland when he charged through the lane and converted a lovely layup. It stretched the lead to seven points with just under four minutes left and looked like a very positive play to quiet the Cavs.
Then Rose started wincing. Then Tom Thibodeau called timeout and inserted Kirk Hinrich. That's when the damage control began.
Rose struggled mightily from the field, but his decision-making seemed to be returning as he finished with seven assists and zero turnovers. Rose also hounded electric Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving for much of the game, limiting Irving to zero field goals and zero assists in the first half. "Uncle Drew" finished the night just 5-of-19 from the floor, but perhaps the effort expended on defense brought Rose's hammy to the straining point.
Even with Rose in the lineup this season, the Bulls have been among the five worst teams in both points scored per 100 possessions and effective field-goal percentage (eFG), the latter stat made worse by their lack of three-point shooters, via ESPN (subscription required). It echoes some of their offensive stats from last season, when they finished 29th in eFG.
Rose had also shown significant rust through the first five games of the season, struggling to make shots (24-of-75), committing copious turnovers (5.0 per game) and not dishing many dimes (4.0 per game). Rose's shooting remained poor on Monday night, but he showed an aggression on the court and took much better care of the ball while still promoting good ball movement. Chicago had 24 team assists on 34 field goals.
Unfortunately, each game Rose sits out is another lost opportunity to work on his offensive rhythm with the starters. When Rose is in the groove and his teammates anticipate their point guard's moves, the offense sings. Recall the 2011-12 season when Chicago seized the No. 1 seed in the East.
The Bulls got used to life without D-Rose last season when they got great production from their formidable frontcourt of Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah. They even snagged an inspiring road win in Game 7 of the postseason's first round before falling to the Miami Heat.
The big difference from last year is that both Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli now wear different uniforms, so Chicago is left with precious little depth in its backcourt. Hinrich obviously slides in as the starting point guard, and an added burden will be placed on Jimmy Butler and Mike Dunleavy.
However, reserve guards Mike James and Marquis Teague have previously been nailed to the end of the bench and do not seem ready for anything close to the prime time. They have combined for a total of six minutes so far this season, and the backcourt is a shell without D-Rose.
Don't Panic, There Will Be Plenty of Time for That Later
If the injury really is "minor," then this shouldn't be much cause for concern. However, any time the words "Derrick Rose" and "injures" appear in the same sentence, hearts skip beats.
Ideally, Rose will only sit out for a game or two and will return soon. He had been playing with grit and vigor this season, and he will surely be determined to get back to action as soon as possible. As much as Bulls fans want nothing to do with the limbo caused by waiting for Rose's return, they shouldn't have to endure it for very long this time.
That had better be the case, as the Bulls need to position themselves well for the playoffs in an improved Eastern Conference. The Indiana Pacers look increasingly formidable with every win, and the Miami Heat are thirsting for yet another title. The Brooklyn Nets have stocked up with championship-pedigree players, and the New York Knicks could make a postseason run if they have everyone healthy.
It will be crucial for the Bulls to keep pace in both the conference and the division for the sake of playoff seeding. That's why they don't just need Rose to be 100 percent for a postseason surge, they need him all season long to pile up the W's and get the offense cooking. Otherwise, it's back to relying on their frontcourt for scoring, slowing the game to a crawl and punishing their opponents on defense.
Without No. 1 running the point, the Bulls are no more than the No. 4 seed in the East, and perhaps substantially lower than that. While they were able to survive last season and notched 45 wins, this squad without Rose is simply not as good as last year's Rose-less team, unless you hold an unusually high opinion of Mike Dunleavy.
The Bulls badly need Rose in the lineup on a regular basis. They can spare a few games while he heals the hamstring, but any prolonged absence or even a series of minor injuries would deal a death blow to their title hopes this season.