The Chicago Bulls are deep enough into their design that they can't swap out the centerpiece now.
As the former MVP goes, the Bulls will follow. That portion of the program hasn't changed.
Yet Chicago's foundation is frighteningly flimsy. As good as this house looks from the outside, its main support beam has already faltered twice. The Bulls can hope that Rose's knee problems—first a torn ACL in his left one, then a torn meniscus in the right—are behind him.
They bet the farm on that fact before knowing this was a battle he would fight. And outside of crossed fingers, well-wishes and all the patience they can muster, they have nothing to help him wage that war.
It used to take something special from Rose—a killer crossover, a rapid-fire offensive outburst, a Tom Thibodeau-approved highlight hustle play—for the Windy City to erupt. Now he can spark mass hysteria simply by stepping inside the lines.
After watching him log just 50 games (regular season and playoffs) the past three years combined, hoop heads are just happy to see him in any type of action. They can look past the rust (5.4 points on 25 percent shooting through five games at the FIBA World Cup), sweat out his injury scares and buy every last bit of his hype still up for sale.
When Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski tells reporters how Rose has shown his teammates he's "back at a level that's elite," fans can take his comments at face value and start counting down the days until Rose's real return (Chicago's season opener on October 29).
The Bulls don't have that luxury. They are far too invested in both his present and future to hear that he's back and immediately subscribe to that theory.
Fans and analysts alike want to stretch out the small strides he's made into something bigger than they are. The Bulls just hope that each baby step can be followed by another.
"We just want to keep building, just daily improvement," Thibodeau told reporters last month. "That's what he's concentrating on."
Rose might not have a choice since he's peppered with questions about his health on a daily basis.
As he should be. It's not as if his play on the international stage has really answered any on its own.
Some nights, he has looked like that athletic superhero NBA fans remember:
Sam Smith @SamSmithHoops
Seriously, though, Rose looks to be moving well, quick on defense and moving smoothly with explosive first step.8/22/2014, 11:32:40 PM
On others, he has seemed to be locked in a battle with his body:
Ethan Strauss @SherwoodStrauss
The way Derrick Rose is moving is...um, I'm not sure he should be out there9/3/2014, 7:59:42 PM
With rust to shake off and fuel tanks to fill, these inconsistencies will likely persist. And so will his media-administered medical checkups.
"I know the questions are going to come and they're going to be there the whole year," Rose said, via ESPN.com's Marc Stein. "So I can't get tired of it."
The Bulls can, though.
Every inquiry made is a reminder of their franchise face's fragility. It's also a suggestion that the Rose coming back to Chicago may not be the two-way force who had the entire basketball world in his palm just a few years back.
"Realistically, when a 25-year-old player whose game depends on explosiveness undergoes two knee surgeries in 19 months, perhaps the best isn't yet to come," wrote David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune.
There is no way to know for sure whether his best days are behind him. That answer will come with time.
The Bulls have hinged their hopes on a full recovery. Despite parting with Thibodeau-favorite Luol Deng last season, they stopped short of holding an all-out fire sale. They entered this offseason fully embracing the buyer’s market, trading up on draft night for Doug McDermott, inking free agent Pau Gasol to a three-year deal and importing draft-and-stash prospect Nikola Mirotic.
Combine that with the key returning pieces—All-Star center Joakim Noah, perimeter stopper Jimmy Butler, super-sub Taj Gibson, rising swingman Tony Snell—and this looks like the recipe for a contender.
It should be one if Rose is healthy enough to lead the way. As ESPNChicago.com’s Mike Wilbon noted, it’s hard finding certainty with this type of recovery:
His second injury makes you reconsider everything ... such as, maybe D-Rose simply can't play the game the way he wants to play it, maybe he can't explode and cut with the ferocity he has until now. Maybe it isn't advisable he come back firing fastballs, but instead rely for the first time on changing speeds and sleight of hand.
Can Rose still be as effective as he was if he changes his style of play? Can a career 31.2 percent three-point shooter afford to stop attacking? Does he even have off-speed stuff in his arsenal?
These are the questions the Bulls need answered. There is no reliability in their world or in his. Two seasons (essentially) lost to injury can have that effect.
But at this point, what else can the franchise do other than hope its brightest star can realign himself? The Bulls' base is unnervingly wobbly, but attempting to remove it will only bring their foundation crashing down.
There is no way to recast his role. There are maybe a handful of players who can match his talent, and perhaps none are better suited for this supporting cast. Even if a better fit for this roster existed, he wouldn't be available on the trade market.
And while Rose hasn't played consistently well on the international circuit, he has said he's pleased with the stuff that doesn't make the stat sheet:
K.C. Johnson @KCJHoop
DRose: "Missing shots, that’s part of the game. But conditioning-wise and how I’ve been playing defense, I’m loving the way I’m playing."9/5/2014, 2:56:20 PM
Considering Rose's age, his obvious ability and what this team can potentially accomplish if he's right, the Bulls have no option but to proceed with him as their primary building block.
Their road ahead is lined with uncertainty, but it's the only one available that might lead to a world title. As long as that remains true, there is no other choice worth considering.
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