After a torn ACL in 2012 and torn meniscus in 2013—a mere 10 games into his much-hyped return—Rose’s body has told us that it’s safe to wonder whether he can ever consistently stay on an NBA floor. His torque-heavy style has proved to be both his fuel and his undoing.
As such, Rose, along with his organization and fanbase, is stuck in a rather sticky Catch-22. Rose has said he has no interest in altering his intense, knee-punishing form, but his career may be a shorter one than most hoped for if he doesn’t.
The Bulls front office, in particular, has cause for concern. Their investment in Rose is massive, as the 2011 MVP has long been at the core of their championship agenda, but the team's lack of other score-first players was only a feasible arrangement when Rose was around. Without his offensive production, and without the opportunities his defense-collapsing drives create, Chicago is positively anemic in the scoring department.
And let's not forget the nearly $78 million the Bulls owe Rose through to the 2016-17 season.
It might be time for the organization to reconsider their program and build more flexible expectations for the rest of Rose’s career. Ten games in two seasons might be a misleading omen—Rose could, of course, remain healthy and effective as ever for the next decade, but this isn’t likely.
Painful as it is to say, Derrick Rose is facing rough odds in his quest to carry his team to a championship. Everyone wants him to succeed, but evidence is running much to the contrary. Rose could be headed toward the territory of Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill—superstars who should've been, but never were.
The Bulls’ approach to the 2014 offseason will have to manage an incredibly fine line between faith and prudence. How does the team remain invested in their Rose-centric program while also planning for the possibility of yet another titanic setback?
Luckily for them, they’ve at least got the assurance that coach Tom Thibodeau should be on the bench for at least as long as Rose's contract—their deals expire simultaneously—to develop players and impose a gelled intensity onto the team. Any sliver of luck in terms of talent acquisition can be spun into basketball gold by Thibodeau, one of the very best leaders in the league.
But Thibodeau, and Rose, won’t be content to make do with short-contract role players like Kirk Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy forever. Everyone in the Bulls organization knows it takes at least two superstar-caliber players to win it all.
The doozy of a question at the root of these roster concerns is this: Can Rose even be one of those superstars anymore, or are Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson the new foundation of Chicago’s hopes?
The Bulls seem to understand that regardless of how things pan out, they must start accumulating a wealth of assets. Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has proved that piling up picks and maintaining cap flexibility is an invaluable strategy in the contemporary NBA, regardless of how long your franchise seems to be stalling. His methodology landed him James Harden and then Dwight Howard.
The Bulls, likewise, have signaled that their door is at least somewhat open to the potential of gutting the team and starting over—when they traded Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers, many called it the end of an era, the death of the Bulls’ title dreams until they found a new way.
For the time being, Chicago travels a plank more subtle than such a start over. But only because they’re waiting to see which Derrick Rose they’ll have in the 2014-15 season. Only then can they properly appraise what they have and who they are. If Rose comes back and can only function as a glorified role player, what will they do then?
Such a prospect opens a Pandora's box of superstar acquisition maps that most of the rest of the league is also looking into. Who are the Bulls willing to spare among their treasured core of Noah, Gibson and Butler in order to make a run at Kevin Love or Carmelo Anthony—or even Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant, who will be free agents in 2016. How many years long will Chicago's new plan be?
Make no mistake—the Bulls’ finger is closer to the button than it’s been since they drafted Rose. Let’s hope they don’t have to press it.