It was easy to believe, mostly because we all wanted to believe it, that Derrick Rose, a pair of injuries and lost years behind him, was officially ready to reassume his rightful place within the league’s point guard pantheon.
Even if the stats or competitive circumstances stand short of spectacular, Rose’s heart—hardened, no doubt, by the hells of healing—has been on display for all to see.
But following a dreadful three-point, three-turnover performance in Team USA’s 101-71 rout of Slovenia Tuesday, it’s fair to wonder whether Rose’s second ascent might meet with more setbacks than previously expected.
True, the game—Team USA’s final tune-up ahead of Saturday’s FIBA World Cup opener against Finland—carried no competitive significance.
True, Rose was likely being cautious following general, non-knee-related soreness prior to last Friday’s tilt against the Dominican Republic.
True, with so many weapons at his disposal, Mike Krzyzewski needn’t lean too heavily on the longstanding Team USA staple—particularly not with Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau seated nerves a-bundle beside him.
All the same, it’s impossible not to see Rose’s struggles as a reflection of something more than mere circumstance. Perhaps, after two knee surgeries in as many years and the attendant recoveries that followed, our patience and prudence were put to pasture.
Perhaps the flashes of brilliance we saw during Rose’s first few runs at Team USA’s training camp were merely that: flashes, fleeting and far too fickle to be a guarantor of greatness to come.
For his part—wise, considering his level of investment—Thibodeau is doing his best to keep all of it in perspective.
‘‘You’re going day by day,’’ Thibodeau told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley shortly after the Slovenia game. ‘‘We knew that going in. . . . It is a progression. [Rose] has gotten a lot better. The main thing is shaking the rust off. He will continue to build. If he needs a day off, he will get a day off. He says he feels great.’’
It’s only fair that we take Rose at his word, of course. However tempted an athlete of his caliber might be to delve into denial, such an instinct would doubtless be trumped by the sheer fear of not wanting disaster to strike in threes.
Besides, we’ve seen this movie before. Specifically during last year’s preseason slate, when Rose’s steady improvement had just about everyone convinced the comeback was complete.
Three weeks of mixed performances later, Rose went down again, tearing the MCL of his right knee in a 98-95 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers last November 22.
Ever since, Rose’s self-sanctioned directive—as best as it could be interpreted, anyway—has been crystal clear: Only when I’m 100 percent healthy will my heels hit the hardwood.
Accepting that logic for what it is, Rose’s stint with Team USA must be considered in a light more practical than predictive, and more strategic than spectacular. It’s a perspective Bleacher Report’s Stephen Babb captured beautifully in a recent piece on Rose’s MVP prospects:
In truth, the FIBA play is more than just an early indicator. It should also afford Rose the opportunity to ease himself back into playing shape, regaining some semblance of rhythm before NBA competition begins.
If Rose weren't getting his feet wet on a global stage, chances are he'd try to do so somewhere else.
…One advantage to doing it this way is that Rose can return in a controlled environment in which his playing time and exertion can be carefully managed.
For Team USA, choosing three point guards for its final 12-man roster (Rose, Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving) is more than just a happy accident; it serves as a sensible hedge against exactly what everyone feared: that Rose’s road to recovery was always destined for bumps aplenty.
In opting for significant backcourt depth, Krzyzewski is—intentionally or not—sparing Rose the pressure of taking on too much, too soon, while at the same time reacclimating the former MVP to the kind of pace and speed that no amount of pickup games could ever truly prepare him for.
In short, both sides have approached the FIBA lead-up with a palpable mix of intelligence and patience.
Whether that’s good enough for the countless fans desperate for a full and final D-Rose return—to say nothing of the player himself—is another question altogether.
To be sure, there are plenty for whom pessimism, or at least guarded realism, is the only perspective worth having. In a column penned shortly after Rose’s second injury, ESPN’s Michael Wilbon—a Chicago diehard through and through—couldn’t help but cite the tragic case of another NBA superstar cruelly cut down in his prime:
Bernard King did it, once upon a time in the 1980s, coming back from two serious knee injuries at a time when medical technology and rehabilitation were primitive compared to what they are now. King was never great after the knee surgeries, but he was really good. And if settling for that seemed unthinkable a month ago, it now sounds like the new Rose reality. People keep looking for a precedent, a player of consequence who came back from not just one knee surgery but two. Well, study King's career.
Granted, orthopedic medicine has come a long way in the 30 years since King’s devastating injury. Ditto the workout and rehabilitation regimens required as a result.
But so too has the game’s sheer athleticism. For all of his basketball brilliance, King couldn’t hold half a candle to Rose’s near unrivaled power, an approach at once breathtaking and unsettlingly aggressive—violent, even.
That Rose will have to alter his game is, at this point, all but cast in stone. Even if he’s somehow able to regain his paint-penetrating abilities, the cavalier cuts and aerial acrobatics will have to take a backseat to more milquetoast concerns: floaters, jumpers, dependability from beyond the arc and the like.
However Rose’s game ultimately evolves, his return—formal, final and without further incident—remains foremost on the minds of millions.
Unlike with so many other stories of achievement and redemption, this time around, the destination is far, far more important than the journey itself.