That’s the split-second judgment. Make the decision a real one—with real money and real legacies on the line—and the answers, sadly, stand to be a bit different.
With Rose still recovering from his second knee injury in as many years, it’s safe to wonder: Have his trials and travails compromised the Chicago Bulls’ ability to attract free agents?
For his part, Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau dismissed the notion out of hand during a draft-night interview with ESPN Radio (via ESPNChicago.com’s Nick Friedell):
Not really. In the NBA, injuries are part of it. And most guys go through a period in their own career when they're injured. It's adversity that you have to get past and get over and most of these guys have done that, so I don't think that's going to be a big deal. I think they're going to see Derrick and they're going to know that he is healthy.
On the surface at least, Chicago’s status as an A-1 NBA destination remains all but unimpeachable. Just look at Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love, whose respective free-agency forays have included the Windy City as a rumored destination, via Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Of course, media hearsay and serious interest are two very different things. Anthony and Love might indeed be intrigued by the idea of taking their talents to Chi-Town, but that doesn’t mean even they don’t have reservations—Rose-oriented or otherwise.
Thibodeau is right in pointing out that Rose isn’t the first player to have the injury bug put his career on hold. At the same time, few stars have relied more heavily on unbridled basketball athleticism than Chicago’s freakish floor general.
Seldom have we seen an athlete whose sheer movements seem so violent, so contrary to the laws of human physics—vertically, laterally or otherwise. Before his injuries, Rose’s exploits were the stuff of YouTube myth, his freight-train takes and whirling-dervish drives forever redefining what an NBA point guard could be.
And he may well reclaim that magnificent mantle, modern medicine willing. In that respect, his prospects are light years beyond those of his bygone, injury-plagued peers.
The possibility remains, though, that Rose’s game—dependent as it’s been on speed and airspace—might have to be completely recalibrated.
Given Rose’s age (25) and jaw-dropping offensive skill set, there’s plenty of reason to believe he’ll succeed in doing just that.
But for every Bernard King and Kyle Lowry, there’s a Brandon Roy and Grant Hill—guys whose careers were either cut short or rendered pedestrian by little more than an ill-timed turn or bad genetic draw.
Pray as we might that Rose’s story follows the former’s courses, there’s little doubt his franchise’s flux is bound to give any would-be teammate pause. In an industry where one false move can lose a man millions, costs and benefits are picked over with IRS discretion.
You can say that’s unfair, particularly given Chicago’s two straight playoff drives minus their main engine. And you’d be right. Thibodeau deserves his own glass-encased closet in Springfield just for his work the past two seasons.
Between Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler and Doug McDermott, Chicago boasts plenty of second-tier talent. And as bad as the Bulls were offensively (they finished 27th in the league in efficiency), it’s hard to believe Rose’s return—coupled with a weapon of Love or Anthony’s caliber—wouldn’t turn them into at least a top-10 threat.
Add that to Chicago’s death-grip defense, and Eastern Conference supremacy becomes a distinct possibility.
To do that, the Bulls must be able to not only make the sell themselves, but also trust that Rose’s rarefied clout can yield its own recruiting magic. From Friedell:
Of course, what would be most attractive for the Bulls is being able to sell Rose's clean bill of health. Because nobody knows how his body will respond after being out for so long, the Bulls have to sell hope on a certain level.
Both Thibodeau and Forman were noncommittal when it came to the possibility of Rose himself being part of the recruiting pitch. The 25-year-old has said multiple times that he doesn't feel comfortable recruiting other players.
‘I think we're selling all our players,’ Thibodeau said. ‘And they're selling themselves. They're going to communicate with each other and so they're all going to be part of the process.’
From a front-office perspective, Chicago’s free-agent pitch should entail little more than a quiet walk across the United Center floor and a single spotlight fixed on the six banners in the rafters.
Still, while franchise success might set them up, it’s the players who knock them down. Which is what makes Rose so critically important to the Bulls’ cause. Even if he can’t say with 100 percent certainty that he’ll recapture his MVP form, Rose can at least leverage Chicago’s unquestioned clout from the perspective players most respect: that of a peer.
Chicago has compiled a regular-season record of 93-71 in the two near-full seasons Rose has missed. Achieving that without one of the best 10 players in the league and with Noah as your primary offensive weapon isn’t merely admirable; it's straight-up incredible. And it speaks to Thibodeau and the Bulls' ability to forge ahead in spite of sad circumstance and sinister luck.
In the end, whether the Bulls can strike free-agent gold is less about dispelling the risk that their best player may never be the same and more about carrying on a cultural torch—one big and bright enough, perhaps, to complement Rose's best possible pitch:
You’re not going to a playoff team; we’re both going.