It’s not the question any Bulls fan wants to consider, and it must be a terrifying one to the Bulls’ front office, but after two major knee injuries in his last 11 games, it’s impossible not to ponder it.
Are the Bulls doomed to a post-Rose dystopia, where fans pick their way through shards of broken dreams in red-turned-grey gear, sitting passively in the United Center, the sounds of squeaking sneakers and Carlos Boozer screams reverberating through the void of hope?
There’s always that possibility, but it’s the least likely of all—even less likely than Rose returning to MVP form next season and actually remaining healthy. The ACL tear, the more severe injury, will be two years removed from surgery. The meniscus tear will have almost a full year of recovery time, more than twice as long Russell Westbrook experienced.
Not everything is binary, though; we don’t live in a world of only two extremes. There is the vast world which exists in the middle of those two possibilities, where Rose returns, but not to MVP caliber.
In that world, what are the possibilities?
Here they are from worst to best.
What if Rose Returns, and Then Suffers a Career-Ending Injury?
One possibility is that Rose returns, only to briefly touch his former glory before tearing a third knee, thus ending his career (and potentially explaining his inexplicable speed with the realization that he has three legs).
In fact, the “worst” of all scenarios—that Rose’s career ends prematurely—is not nearly as bad as it might seem. If that happened, there’s an exclusion in the Collective Bargaining Agreement which allows for a player to still receive their pay, but for the team to exclude that salary from the cap. That means the Bulls would be allowed to take the roughly $20 million per year of Rose’s remaining contract off the books.
The 2015 free-agent market would be an opportunity for the Bulls to sign a max-contract player.
That could include players such as LeBron James (if he doesn’t exercise his option with the Miami Heat this summer), Kevin Love of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Brook Lopez of the Brooklyn Nets and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There are some who fear that the Bulls could have Rose’s contract on the books and get no play from him year after year. There are provisions to keep that from happening, though, and expect the Bulls to use them if worst comes to worst.
What if Rose Comes Back as a Role Player?
There is a reprieve if Rose is not there at all, so the worst scenario is that Rose does return, but only as a role player.
The nature of his injuries don’t really suggest that as a likely scenario. The ACL injury is generally the more career-threatening injury, and while Rose was decidedly rusty in his return, his speed and explosiveness were still there. With meniscus injuries, that’s not a concern.
There is the more realistic fear that Rose, because of the injuries, loses his aggressiveness and tries to change his game, turning himself into a jump-shooting point guard like Baron Davis towards the end of his career. If that happens, it’s probable he’ll become fairly ordinary.
He is not a great shooter, though his form was improved after the full year of working on his shot. Without the penetration to set it up, defenses won’t respect his drive, so they won’t sag off of him. That means he won’t get open shots, and Rose is not the type of player who can set up his offense with his jumper.
He won’t be deplorable, but he might not be much better than average in that situation. His court vision is underrated, but not superior. He could become an adequate “true point guard,” but he doesn’t have the instincts or shot to be an elite “true point guard.”
The elite status of his game is predicated on his penetration. Sans that, at best, he’s just pretty good.
That could leave the Bulls pretty destitute. Without Rose being “Rose,” the free-agency attraction wouldn’t be there. The rest of the roster is still solid, but that's all. Between that, and the coaching of Tom Thibodeau, if he stays with the team, the Bulls will remain good enough to be a playoff team, but not good enough to contend for a title.
That means their chances of getting into the lottery are also slim.
It would be extremely difficult to trade Rose in such a scenario too. Teams would have been clamoring to trade for Rose after he first signed his extension, but two major knee injuries later, no one is going to even consider it until he proves he can play.
Teams aren’t going to trade for a max-contract player who can’t play like one. Whatever incentive the Bulls would have to trade him is a disincentive for teams to trade for him. If Rose reached the point of wearing out his welcome in Chicago, where would he be welcome?
And of course, if he can play like a superstar, there’s no reason to trade him.
Some might argue that players with horrible contracts like Gilbert Arenas and Rashard Lewis were traded, but I would counter that they were traded for each other. You can trade a horrible contract, but you get horrible contracts back. In that case, better the devil you know and all that.
In this scenario, the Bulls would be stuck in the mid-40s win quagmire year after year, slogging through games trying to generate offense, playing superb defense and boring fans to tears.
What if Rose Comes Back as an All-Star Reserve?
The most likely of all scenarios is that Rose comes back, but at the caliber of an All-Star reserve. Maybe he’s not an MVP candidate, but he still has enough penetration to set up the drive-and-kick offense, scoring when he needs to.
That might not be so bad. In fact, it might be a little bit better than if he came back as an MVP-caliber player. If he’s more reliant on his teammates, that means he’s going to be using his penetration to set up others, rather than force shots.
This was the biggest weakness of Rose during his MVP run and during his brief comeback this season. If, upon returning, out of sheer physical necessity, he starts leaning more on his teammates, Rose being slightly worse could mean that the team actually gets better.
That would be amplified by one of two scenarios, and they are not mutually exclusive.
First, Nikola Mirotic, the Bulls’ draft-and-stash sensation, who is shooting 59.4 percent from deep and a surreal 72.0 effective field-goal percentage in Euroleague, should be coming over this summer. Having Rose as a willing table-setter could make him into an NBA superstar almost out of the gate.
Second, Rose with a pass-first mentality becomes more attractive to other superstars who might be considering Chicago in free agency. Carmelo Anthony, anyone? If you’re an elite shooter, a player who is going to do the hard work, setting you up for open shots, becomes immensely more attractive.
That would also bode well for Rose’s longevity. Less driving to the rim means less abuse to his body, which in turn means a lower risk of re-injury to either knee.
Rose as “Robin” might be the best chance the Bulls have for winning a title in the long run, even better than Rose as “Batman.”
Even if he isn’t the future of the Chicago Bulls, he can still be a valuable part of it. Perhaps the Bulls aren’t hurtling towards a post-apocalyptic destiny after all.