Tom Thibodeau’s gotten a lot out of rental point guards since joining the Chicago Bulls in 2010. D.J. Augustin, Nate Robinson, John Lucas III and C.J. Watson have all yielded surprisingly significant returns under his watch. But his next act will involve maximizing the skills of his franchise’s largest investment: Derrick Rose.
Given that Rose has played 10 regular-season games over the last two seasons combined, health is clearly the No. 1 determinant to who he can be as a player going forward. But the endurance of his famously combustible knees isn’t the only factor figuring into Rose’s success.
He’ll also be facing an extremely steep adjustment curve—one even tougher than the slope he ran up against at the onset of this past season. Rose looked to have his same singular speed, instincts and elevation when he was last on the floor, but there’s no denying that he was also very rusty. He was struggling to combine finesse and shot-making with his bodily power, and his 9.83 player efficiency rating in that run was less than half of the 23.5 mark from his MVP season in 2011-12.
Reacclimatizing to the game should only be harsher this time around. One year away from the game is a lot—but now Rose has been virtually absent from NBA courts for two full seasons. He'll need help from a familiar point guard wrangler—the man who deserves a lot of the credit for the Bulls performing above expectations for two seasons in a row.
Enter Thibodeau. His largest Rose-related challenge lies in getting the star Chicago native to do something he’s never done before: relax. Rose has always felt immense pressure to carry his team and turn Chicago into the land of basketball milk and honey, creating whatever solace he can for the murderous south side he grew up on.
“With all the stuff that’s going on in this city, a kid from Englewood has got something positive going on,” Rose said amidst heavy tears in a 2012 press conference for Adidas.
Inspiring stuff. Rose is the perfect candidate for heroism in a broken city—but such tales shouldn’t over-effect his approach on the court. Thibodeau needs to manage the game so Rose doesn’t feel he must take on the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Washington Wizards and the rest of the Eastern Conference all by himself.
In years past, Rose has been all too responsible for solving Chicago’s consistent scoring woes. A lack of other creative, dynamic scorers is surely to blame, but at times Rose has also granted too much weight to the chip on his shoulder.
The last true playoff test Rose faced, back in the yesteryear of May 2011, was against James and the Heat. Once Miami’s then-new trapping defense solved almost all of the Bulls’ scoring options—save for the rogue Rose breakaway—most experts knew the series was over. It was hard to watch as Rose tried to overcome the supersquad (full of individuals with deep playoff success, despite a new core) single-handedly. Rose repeatedly ran into their brick wall sets with a full head of steam.
But Rose was also just 22 years old at the time. That episode was a growing pain the likes of which all rising stars must experience. The problem now, unfortunately, is that Rose hasn’t had a lot of time to play beyond such a mindset. Since being ousted by the Heat, he’s only seen action in one playoff game—the one in which he tragically tore his ACL the following season.
Thibodeau will now have to help Rose grow beyond his limited experience. It will be an immense challenge trying to rein in the self-motivating point guard in the face of so much work to do, but Thibodeau must pull Rose back from the fervor of another return and keep him in the moment.
As he did with other Bull point guards before him, he'll have to narrow Rose's scope of the court and keep him focused on the playbook and choosing his spots to take possessions over only when it most behooves his team. This may seem like a small task for a former MVP, but his body has been away from the game for so long now.
Turning around Robinson and Augustin, two players on the brink of NBA extinction, was one thing. The more subtle, complex task of guiding Derrick Rose back into his role as team general and calm, efficient leader will test just how astute Thibodeau’s ways with the point guard breed are.