On Saturday afternoon, the entire NBA community sat with bated breath. Three stars, each on a team with NBA Finals aspirations, were awaiting MRI results on injuries sustained in a nightmarish display of Happenstance Theatre on Friday.
All three results came back with a similar prognosis: out indefinitely. But the meaning differs in each case.
Gasol and Iguodala received relatively good news in that their injuries won't need surgery. Gasol suffered a Grade 2 MCL sprain, which is essentially a slight tear and will keep him out at least six weeks if history is any indication. Iguodala has a strained left hamstring, and given the wonky nature of that muscle, it's hard to tell if he'll be on the sideline three weeks or 12.
Rose wasn't so lucky. While he avoided suffering another torn ACL, he did suffer a meniscus tear that will require surgery on Monday. His long-term prognosis will largely depend on what the surgeons find when they open him up. It's possible that a full repair of the meniscus is possible, which involves a reattachment and is the ideal outcome over the long term.
However, as we've seen with plenty of athletes in the past, the doctors may have to "shave" part of it off or even remove it altogether—both of which can open up issues going forward.
Right now, it again looks like the Chicago Bulls and Rose will be going with the safest option possible. K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune reported the situation is "leaning" toward a reattachment, a decision that will likely keep Rose out for the remainder of the season:
If Derrick Rose has meniscus reattached---the way it's leaning---and misses rest of season, he'll have played in 50 games over 3 seasons.— K.C. Johnson (@KCJHoop) November 24, 2013
The obvious reaction here is sadness. Rose, even if he was struggling to find his form this season, makes the NBA better, more exciting. Anyone who even remotely cares about the league's life is worse for his injury.
Looking past that, though, it's hard not to wonder what Rose's latest setback means for the Bulls. With Rose returning, Jimmy Butler supposedly on the verge of a leap and owner Jerry Reinsdorf finally willing to pay the luxury tax, Chicago looked like a team on the precipice of realizing its championship-contending destiny.
Now, the East consists of two contenders (Miami and the Indiana Pacers) and a 13-team morass competing to either get slaughtered by one or the other or to get as many pingpong balls for the Sorry for Jabari sweepstakes.
We have to play out the remaining schedule to see how these things actually shake out, but you'll have a hard time finding anyone who doesn't think we're destined for an Indiana-Miami rematch come May.
The Bulls, meanwhile, will in the interim revert to a slightly altered version of who they were last season.
Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Richard Hamilton have each departed, being replaced by an increased role for Butler and Mike Dunleavy, who will probably start running some of the nifty pick-and-roll action he flashed last season in Milwaukee on a limited basis. Marquis Teague's role will increase from nonexistent to primary backup guard, and Kirk Hinrich will unnervingly begin playing more than 30 minutes a night again.
In this Eastern Conference, we're probably still looking at a team good enough for a top-five seed. The Bulls were the fifth-best defensive team in basketball last season without Rose, and they've actually been better without him on that end as he adjusted this year. Tom Thibodeau has also shown a propensity for grinding his starters down with high minutes totals, and we're likely to see some more of that this season.
Fine. Be the No. 5 seed and get slaughtered by Indiana in the second round. But there's an alternative route here. With championship contention out of the question, could Chicago look to blow up its core and start off a retooling process?
It's more of a possibility than you'd initially think. In many ways, the writing was already on the wall for this season being a make-or-break year for the current Bulls core.
Luol Deng's contract expires after this season. Carlos Boozer's deal will expire following the 2014-15 campaign, meaning the clock is ticking on his amnesty chip. With a Jimmy Butler extension coming somewhere down the pike and the Bulls possibly having max-level cap room this or next summer with some financial rejiggering, why not start the process early?
Deng is the most obvious initial chess move. At age 28 and a decade into his career, Deng basically is who he's going to be as a basketball player. He's a smart and athletic perimeter defender who rebounds at an above-average rate, but struggles beyond the arc and can't be consistently relied upon as more than a second or third scoring option.
Deng and the Bulls also have a markedly differing view of what a player with his skill set is worth. Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports noted before the season that Deng was "frustrated" about the lack of progress on a new deal, and there was even some speculation he'd be the fall guy if things went awry.
Despite his expiring contract, Chicago could find any number of suitors willing to make a deal. Cleveland Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant is facing a win-now edict despite his team's terrible start, has a massive hole on the wing and possesses a war chest of assets available for a possible deal.
Would Cleveland be willing to structure a deal around, say, either Dion Waiters or struggling top pick Anthony Bennett? I mean, this deal works.
Making deals with rivals is always a difficult proposition, but there may be no more desperate team in basketball than the New York Knicks. They would need a third team willing take on some salary, but structuring a deal around Iman Shumpert could play to both Chicago's and New York's wants. The world might implode before a Celtics-Knicks-Bulls three-way deal went down, but again, it's within the realm of possibilities.
Boozer is off to a stellar offensive start, and he'd be an ideal pickup for plenty of needy offensive teams if it weren't for his max-level deal. Joakim Noah, who was considered untouchable this offseason, is a player who could change an entire outlook for a team willing to swing big with young assets.
Going down the trade-machine rabbit hole is easy. But whether the Bulls trade one, two or none of the three non-Rose core players on their roster, no one should feel safe at this point. This team needs to get younger and more financially flexible to build a proper long-term roster around Rose, who frankly can no longer be seen as one of the league's cornerstone talents.
What Should the Bulls Do with Their Core Roster?
The Bulls won't have to wait weeks or months to know what they're dealing with here. Rose's operation will be performed Monday, and the doctors should be able to provide a reasonable prognosis on the spot.
If he's out for the season, there's no point in keeping Deng if he's not going to get a long-term deal. Flip the asset and move on. Chicago should and will make the necessary moves to avoid paying the luxury tax. Starting the dreaded repeater clock for a roster without a chance at hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy just isn't going to happen on Reinsdorf's watch.
Nevertheless, it's clear that Rose's injury wasn't just the latest setback for one of the game's most exciting talents. It'll likely spell the end of the road for a Chicago core that never even got a chance.
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