Following a 2013-14 season lost to injury and individual disappointment, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose are preparing for long-awaited comebacks, returning to different coasts, facing identical pressures.
Bryant is the 35-going-on-36-year-old approaching the end of his illustrious career, looking for a way to extend the Los Angeles Lakers' championship window. Rose is the 25-year-old point guard combating three straight seasons of protracted absence, pining for a return to MVP form, hoping to shed some bright light over his future with the Chicago Bulls.
Both players have reputations and expectations to uphold—and futures on the line.
One just has more riding on his latest return than the other.
There is only one thing Bryant cares about at this stage of his career: a sixth title. He wants the numbers and he wants to stay healthy, but he needs the championship, he needs the Lakers to turn things around quickly. That's his primary focus heading into next season.
Staying healthy is part one of the ring-procuring process. Bryant only appeared in six games last year. It's the first time he has missed 25 or more contests in a single season in his entire career, making this about more than his next title pursuit.
The Black Mamba's basketball mortality is being tested. He's never faced this kind of uncertainty before, after spending his entire career as the poster boy for durability and playing through injuries. Age is against him. The odds are against him.
His body could betray him.
“Oh, yeah. I’m 100 percent,” Kobe Bryant said while in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup when asked if he’ll be ready for next season, per the New York Daily News' Caleb Breslin. “One hundred percent.”
He better hope so, since, as of now, he is the only thing standing between the Lakers and a second straight lottery berth for just the second time in franchise history.
Stars won't be flocking to Los Angeles this summer. Though USA Today's Sam Amick said the Lakers are holding out hope that marquee free agents make the trip to Tinseltown, Bryant is now a deterrent.
That $48.5 million extension he signed before even returning from his first injury turns people off. There will be no free-agency coups in Los Angeles until next summer, if and when he's proven to be healthy and productive.
And Bryant needs to be healthy and productive. It's important to Los Angeles' rebuild and his title pursuit, but it's paramount to keeping Tim Duncan in his sights.
Winning a fifth championship thrust Timmy D ahead of Kobe, if he wasn't there already. Staying in the conversation demands transformation and sustained excellence. It dictates health and presence. And as Bryant embarks on his renewed quest for a sixth championship, he does so knowing that Duncan—who is expected to return—is right there, ahead of him, as Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan observed:
Kobe is nothing if not a hyper-competitive dude. To Bryant, Duncan winning a sixth chip wouldn’t simply mean he’d been bested by an inter-generational foe; it would mean Duncan had done something Kobe couldn’t: match Michael Jordan’s ring count.
One season, one more championship, won't catapult Bryant back to the forefront of his generation. Yet regardless of what he's fighting for and what it means for his legacy, he doesn't have a season, game or moment to waste.
Another misstep, another injury, another lottery berth, and Bryant's twilight won't be memorialized for its unorthodox progression. It will be remembered like most others: for its inability to elude time, defy logic and delay the sharp, vinegary, largely predictable end.
That's how many games Rose missed through his first three seasons.
That's how many regular-season and postseason contests Rose has played in since 2011-12.
There is no riding his 2010-11 MVP award anymore. Attribute Rose's last three seasons to whatever you want. Bad luck, complete inability to stay healthy, a harbinger of doom—whatever. It doesn't matter. Rose isn't a former MVP; he's a fallen MVP, trying reestablish his footing on three seasons of shaky ground.
K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune (subscription required) said in a mailbag that Rose would be "fine to play" if the season started now, which is all well and good.
But we've heard this before. It was the same story heading into last season. Rose was fine. He was better than ever.
‘‘I think he’s all the way back and more,’’ Jimmy Butler said of Rose in October, via the Chicago Sun-Times' Joe Cowley. ‘‘You see he’s still going to the hole strong, finishing with contact, hitting open J’s, floaters, this, that. The complete package.’’
"Complete" wasn't a word that could describe Rose last season. Through 10 games, he looked rusty, caught between adjusting his game and trying to remain the focal point of an oft-helpless offense.
All of which was expected. Ten games is nothing. Returning to form would be a process. It's still a process—one that's taken longer than projected and drained confidence from a prominent, traditionally self-assured Bulls franchise.
The powers that be aren't sold on Rose as Chicago's long-term cornerstone. How could they be? They can't. Not by choice. His various injuries have left them scrambling, trying to bring in talent at almost any expense, per Cowley:
According to several NBA sources Sunday, the Bulls have been actively looking to improve the starting lineup at almost any cost, with Derrick Rose the only untouchable player — and not by choice.
“They are looking to exhaust as many assets as it will take,’’ one source said of general manager Gar Forman and head of basketball operations John Paxson.
Desperate talent searches aren't indicative of a club that believes it can contend as constructed. Rose must be out to prove the opposite, to show that he's not fated to waffle in and out of the lineup for years to come.
This latest return will say the most about him, about his future. He's owed more than $60 million over the next three years. When free agents look at Chicago, they'll have to consider their future next to him, for better or worse. There is little to suggest it's for the better right now.
Carmelo Anthony has the Bulls on his short list of teams he'll leave the New York Knicks for, according to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski. But while Anthony may have one foot out the door in New York, it's entirely possible he spurns the Bulls, the opportunity to play with Joakim Noah and Butler and the chance to play under Tom Thibodeau because of Rose.
Some of this gets lost in translation, in blind hope and faith that everything will be fine because Rose is so young and so good.
Playing with Rose, building around Rose, is no longer a selling point. It eventually could be, but neither interested players nor the Bulls themselves know for sure.
Next season is about eradicating such doubt, disentangling the Bulls and Rose from the web of injuries and letdowns and confusion and equivocacy they've been trapped in for years.
Come back, play well, stay healthy and Rose's reputation is restored. The Bulls' future is brighter. Plans can be mapped out with more certainty.
Thibodeau on the offseason: "We were short-handed this year, but we're positioned well. ... How we surround Derrick will be critical."— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) April 30, 2014
Return only to struggle long term or injure himself again, and Rose's outlook in Chicago bypasses lingering optimism and enters a winding free fall.
A Protected Kobe vs. An Exposed D-Rose
Who has more riding on 2014-15?
Hopefully that was obvious by now.
Safety nets surround Bryant. At least 15 years of security, in fact. He isn't trying to rescue himself from career-defining tragedy. His legacy is already in the bank.
Veterans fail. They get hurt. Their careers start spiraling in the wrong direction. Fans and critics expect more of Bryant because he's Bryant, but there's nothing out of the ordinary happening to him right now.
Who has more riding on next season?
If this is it for him, if he has won his last title and played his last game as an invincible superstar, he's still a five-time champion, first-ballot Hall of Famer and unquestionable all-time great.
Rose has nothing of the sort to fall back on. Another lost or discouraging year gives him more seasons of unrest and dejection than stability and success. That's the truth.
Where Bryant is playing to further pad his undamaged legacy, Rose is playing for his future and the chance to leave credentials behind that don't trigger sagged shoulders, words of regret and stampeding footnotes.
"Let's face it, he's still only 25," Bulls general manager Gar Forman said of Rose, per ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. "He's still got 10, 12, 15 years ahead in his career, so everything went as we wanted it to and he continues to make great progress."
Enough progress to safeguard himself against doubt and the risk of deep-rooted failure?
Only time can tell.
Only 2014-15 can tell whether Rose is laying 10, 12, 15 years of hope in front of him, or being sentenced to another season spent waiting for the next one to solve everything.
*Contract information via ShamSports.