The words are sitting on the tip of the tongue.
With each strong drive to the basket, each buried triple, they almost escape. Try as we might, though, there's just no way to say Derrick Rose is back.
Not while he's fighting to get his field-goal percentage above 40; it's at 35.9 now. Not when mere mediocrity escapes him—see: 9.7 player efficiency rating.
The Chicago Bulls (6-4) can win without him. They proved as much last season.
But until Rose can scrape off the rust left by 18 months away from the game, Chicago's championship chances will remain as elusive as those words we'd love to but can't put on Rose's return.
Better Without Him?
It's a ridiculous question to ask. Superstars win titles, and no one else on this roster can wear that label.
But if Chicago's hopes rest squarely on Rose's shoulders, right now they look like broken dreams:
This isn't the same Rose that Bulls fans remember. Explosiveness comes in spurts. Points come fewer and further between.
It's too early to strip him of superstar status, but league officials may have already pulled that plug:
That three-point stroke he said he added this summer? It's coming along (33.3 percent), at least with more regularity than it had before (career 31.1).
But whatever touch he's added beyond the arc seems to have been lost inside of it.
What's troubling here is that this isn't a matter of finding his spots. His quickness looks as sharp as ever. Defenses are still struggling to stay in front of him.
He's getting 5.9 looks a night within five feet of the basket. That's almost as many as he saw in 2011-12 (6.7) despite the fact that he's lost nearly four minutes of floor time (31.4 down from 35.3).
He's forcing the action and not in a good way. The fact that he's spending so much time near the tin and so little at the foul line shows what kinds of lanes he's driving into.
But he's frustrated. The things that used to work just aren't working anymore.
If his drives stop short of the basket, he's even less of a threat. Per NBA.com's SportVU database, Rose has hit a woeful 21.8 percent of his pull-up jumpers. Only J.R. Smith has a worse conversion rate (11.4) among players with at least four such attempts per game.
Finding teammates hasn't been the answer. He's tallied just 4.4 assists a night—a little over half of his 2011-12 output (7.9)—and turned the ball over at a career-worst 16.1 percent rate.
Doesn't sound like a superstar, does it? It definitely looks nothing like the Rose of old.
But the Bulls are waiting for that player to return. At this point, what other options do they have?
Clock Is Ticking
If this is a dire situation, you'd have a hard time telling that from the outside. Not even the faintest alarm has caught a drift through the Windy City streets.
Thanks to an underwhelming performance by their peers, the Bulls hold the third-best record in the Eastern Conference.
But something's still not right in Chicago or the entire basketball world for that matter:
Rose wasn't supposed to deliver just a good-not-great regular-season effort. His return was meant to ignite a furious race to the Finals, a challenge that's grown even greater with third-year swingman Jimmy Butler sidelined by turf toe.
Rose, for his part, said he's not concerned about his sluggish start, via ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell:
I'm good, man. I'm feeling good. I'm feeling energized. Just ready to get out here and play. My rhythm is coming back a little bit more. And as a team I think that we're playing good basketball, so that's the only thing that I'm worried about.
Then again, actions speak louder than words:
It's tough to imagine Rose's worry-free approach traveling throughout this franchise.
The offensive revival Rose's return was supposed to spark hasn't happened. Chicago's 97.6 points per 100 possessions are the sixth-fewest in the league.
Even more concerning is the fact that Rose has produced a net-loss simply by taking the floor.
|More Harm Than Help|
|Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Net Rtg|
|Bulls with Rose:||97.2||99.9||Minus-2.7|
|Bulls without Rose:||98.2||84.1||Plus-14.1|
Obviously, that trend can't continue.
Coach Tom Thibodeau doesn't run a deep rotation as it is, so losing Butler will hurt. Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy are in line for expanded roles, but their ceilings have been set and likely lowered over time.
If Marquis Teague and Tony Snell are ready for the big stage, Thibs isn't buying it. There's a reason, at least in his mind, that those players have largely been buried at the end of his bench.
Carlos Boozer has been a relative offensive force (16.2 points, 51.1 percent shooting), but his production has likely peaked. Luol Deng (15.8 points) is a complementary piece; that's never going to change. Joakim Noah (9.0 points, 44.0 percent shooting) is still getting his legs back under him, and he's never been a major scoring threat.
Rose can be the difference-maker though. He's played that very role for this very franchise so many times before.
But he needs to balance some of that weight on his teammates' shoulders. He can be a brilliant solo act, but Rose does his best work when everyone is involved.
That change will only come over time, as chemistry takes shape and trust gets re-established.
But time can feel deceptively long. The race to the 2014 NBA championship podium is already underway, and Rose's rust can't be a lingering part of this journey.