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Why Derrick Rose Still Holds All the Cards to Chicago Bulls' Future

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 11:  Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in November, practices his shooting before the Bulls take on the Atlanta Hawks at the United Center on February 11, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 29, 2014

The Chicago Bulls spent their summer trying to make life easier for former MVP point guard Derrick Rose.

They made a spirited run at scoring machine Carmelo Anthony, an offensive weapon powerful enough to increase Rose's potency. While that pursuit came up empty, the Bulls still scored several victories following their masterfully sketched Plan B blueprint.

Chicago sought its power in numbers, giving Rose a little bit of everything: interior scoring (Pau Gasol), perimeter shooting (Nikola Mirotic, Greg McDemott) and a personal insurance plan (Aaron Brooks).

Combine the fresh faces with those returning from last season's 48-win squad, and the Bulls have clearly built something of substance.

"I think we have a contender," Rose told ESPNChicago.com's Nick Friedell. "We know as a team what we were trying to do. We all have one goal. And individually, this whole summer I think everybody worked on their games, and everybody's trying to compete for that title next year."

The Bulls, on paper at least, seem to have given Rose all the help he'll need to do just that.

M. Spencer Green/Associated Press

Chicago has had a top-five defense in each of the last four seasons. With Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson still around, that trend should continue.

At the opposite end, this team might be hard to recognize. The Bulls ranked 28th in offensive efficiency last season. Considering the firepower that's now in place, fans might have trouble remembering the days when this team struggled to score.

"You can argue that now their four best scorers are (or will be) Rose, Gasol, McDermott and Mirotic," wrote Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta. "None of those were on last year’s roster except for Rose for 10 games."

Chicago's ceiling sits somewhere between really, really good and great. That's a claim that very few teams in the Eastern Conference can make.

Rose is right: These Bulls are contenders—as long as the point guard is physically right. For everything that has changed this summer, that part of Chicago's story remains the same.

"The key, of course, remains Rose," wrote K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune (subscription required).

The Bulls have something incredibly special in Rose.

The 25-year-old was a 20-point scorer by his second season in the league. By his third year, he had etched his name in the record books as the youngest MVP in NBA history.

Derrick Rose's Meteoric Rise
SeasonPPGFG%APGRPGPER
2008-0916.847.56.33.916.0
2009-1020.848.96.03.818.6
2010-1125.044.57.74.123.5
Basketball-Reference.com

His rise to the NBA's elite coincided with Chicago's.

The Bulls won 33 games the year before Rose's arrival, then 41 in each of his first two seasons. During his MVP campaign, Chicago won an NBA-best 62 games. In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, the Bulls bumped their winning percentage to .758 while posting top-five efficiency rankings at both ends of the floor.

Fans have been studying those numbers since. That was really the last time they saw either a healthy Rose or the Windy City's finest at full strength.

The floor general suffered a torn ACL in his left knee in April 2012 that sidelined him for the entire 2012-13 season. He started the 2013-14 campaign, but went down with a torn meniscus in his right knee just 10 games into his comeback and never returned.

He hasn't played an NBA game since last November. He has made 50 appearances over the past three seasons combined—playoffs included.

PORTLAND, OR - NOVEMBER 22:  Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls sits on the bench before the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 22, 2013 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

Rose might be the biggest question mark in the business. If he's healthy, the Bulls have everything they need to make a run at the title. If he's out of the picture, Chicago probably peaks at a second-round appearance.

For what it's worth, the recent reports on Rose's health are encouraging. He's out in Las Vegas competing for one of 12 Team USA FIBA World Cup roster spots, and he told Sam Smith of Bulls.com that his confidence is as high as ever:

"I'm there man. I'm not worried about that. My confidence is very high," Rose told reporters. "That's the only thing you might see this year, that my confidence level is through the roof."

Rose isn't the only one who sees this, either:

"He looked good," fellow Team USA hopeful Damian Lillard told reporters Monday. "Athletic, explosive, strong."

For Rose, via NBA.com's John Schuhmann, this isn't about getting back to where he was before the injury. It's making that player even better:

[Time away from the game] was a chance for me to really work on my whole body. Get my legs strong, get my upper body strong, and just take advantage of it. 

I’m able to control my body a little bit more, being smart with my speed instead of just running wild out there.

If any of this sounds familiar, it should.

Similar sentiments were expressed at Bulls training camp last fall. Rose declared himself "back" then, via Friedell, while coach Tom Thibodeau and Noah spoke about the comfort Rose displayed.

Maybe Rose was better back then, but his body never let him show it. Maybe people are just forced to manufacture confidence to get them through such a scary injury and lengthy rehab.

Whatever the case, this isn't the first time people have purchased stock in Rose's recovery. Given his importance to the franchise, it won't be the last.

For all the areas the Bulls addressed this summer, they never found another Rose. They could spend the next few years looking for one and still come up empty-handed. Players like him don't come around often, a fact that only adds to the frustration felt over injuries costing him some prime years of his career.

Whether he's back or not, the Bulls have to hope that he is. This team can defend well enough to secure a mid-level playoff spot, but this offense desperately needs Rose's spark.

"They still have only one player -- Rose -- who can get his own shot anytime, and by anytime I mean anytime except when big, nasty defensive teams decide to smother him and make someone else handle the ball in May and June," wrote ESPNChicago.com's Michael Wilbon.

In the short-term, the Bulls need Rose to help maximize their offseason investments. While these pieces should help simplify the game for Rose, their contributions won't make nearly the same impact if he isn't at his best.

Over the long haul, Rose's importance will not diminish.

Nov 6, 2013; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose (1) during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Pacers won 97-80. Mandatory Credit: Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Chicago's championship window opens or closes depending on his availability and performance. This team will go as far as Rose is able to carry it.

The Bulls have seen him at his best. They know what kind of a difference-maker he can be. That's what has kept them so patient throughout this process—they know he's worth the wait.

They also probably know they don't really have any other options.

It's hard enough moving someone with his contract (three years, $60 million remaining, via ShamSports.com) on the trade market.

It's harder still to stomach trading a player of his talent, unless his body has completely robbed him of his natural gifts. If the Bulls ever become convinced that his health has deteriorated to that extent, their potential return package will reflect that.

The Bulls need the good Derrick Rose, the healthy one. That's the only way for this story to have a happy ending.

He's the most important player of their recent past, present and future. If he's good, the Bulls can be great.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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