Derrick Rose is back, playing at an impressive level with some of the NBA’s very best on Team USA. Chicago, and the rest of the basketball-loving world, is excited. His singular driving knack has long made him (when healthy) one of the most enthralling players to watch.
Early returns on Rose’s latest resurgence tell us that his speed and athleticism are both still fully there. That hasn’t changed. And neither has the notion that the Chicago Bulls’ title hopes rise and fall with the court performance of the former MVP. USA coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters:
Derrick was sensational the whole week. He really did that every day, how fast and strong and decisive he was. He really created an air of excitement for the team because we all were anxious to see who he was right now. And who he is is very, very good. We're ecstatic about it and so happy for him.
For the Bulls to get through LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers and come out of the Eastern Conference this year, Rose needs to be his best self. His evolving style, designed to accommodate the team's growing number of offensive options and also limit the contact his glassy body takes, is a definite step in the right direction.
"I'm able to control my body a little bit more, use my speed, being smarter with my speed instead of just being wild out there," Rose said to reporters in Las Vegas. "I'm a smarter player ... a totally different player, but it comes with experience."
Rose’s three-point shot looks to be quickly improving, along with his defense and off-the-ball motion on offense. This is arguably even more encouraging than hearing that the Chicago native is as physically devastating as ever. The Bulls need a well-rounded, smart Rose more than they need a show-stopping hero this year.
The ever-deep San Antonio Spurs showed us, with their impressive 2014 title run, that a wealth of skills and strategy can wash away athletic discrepancies. Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau references Spurs leader Gregg Popovich frequently in his interviews, and it’s no secret that he’s been striving toward a similarly rich basketball culture in Chicago since he landed there in the summer of 2010.
Rose taking steps into a more cerebral style is at the very center of this project. As the team’s motor and most innately talented player, he’s at the forefront of the franchise’s hopes for another dynastic run. When he missed all but 10 games over the last two seasons with dual knee injuries, Bulls realists all knew to stop crossing their fingers for a real postseason run until Rose returned.
The additions the team made this summer help, but they don’t change the crux of the Bulls’ outlook. Among Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott, Aaron Brooks and Nikola Mirotic, the team has offensive heft the likes of which Rose hasn’t yet known as a pro. But without him, the team would still live in runner-up land, even if its other new additions take it a bit further up the mountain.
When the Bulls are at their very best, it’s because Rose is begetting their action. One televised exhibition game with Team USA was enough to remind us that his speed and intuition give him a scheme-breaking edge that even elite players don't have the wits to react to in time.
Gasol is a future Hall of Famer and has an unparalleled game in the post, but he’s 34 years old and is likely past the point where he can be the apex of a strong offense. McDermott is the best shooter the Bulls have drafted in over a decade, but he’ll be a rookie this year—so will Mirotic. Joakim Noah is a secondary scoring option (at best) whose value is more vested in his passing and floor vision than in the baskets he scores.
These players are all extremely valuable, but they don’t come together as a frightening roster without the fulcrum of Rose. His quickness, touch near the rim and growing basketball IQ snowball into an element that defenses simply can’t account for. And when they try, it'll give his teammates cinch open shots.
His presence gives way to playbook permutations the team couldn’t fathom without him, and everyone around him starts looking better as he collapses defenses single-handedly, demanding the attention of an army when he touches the ball.
The Bulls are turning heads with their new and improved roster. But everything you need to know about their hopes to transcend the status of playoff spoiler is in the latest buzz. One man, Rose, looking like himself again is a bigger Bulls story than any we've seen for some time.
Derrick Rose is still the key to another Bulls kingdom, and his play in 2014-15 will go far in defining his team’s fortunes.