Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant are not united by age or roles or even team circumstances. By most measurements, they're vastly different—two different players from two separate eras traveling divergent paths.
One is a youthful point guard, aged beyond his years by injuries, playing for a Chicago Bulls team with NBA title aspirations; the other is a senescent chucker, his primary role on a rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers squad that of a time-thwarter and history-hunter.
Rotten luck has, however, forced their career paths to converge, even if briefly.
Both are still working their way back from injury-infested campaigns that threatened their star standing, if not their careers. And so, while there is typically little room for comparison between ebbing veterans and younger studs, Bryant and Rose find themselves fighting the same battle—one that unintentionally pits reforming star against reforming star.
Whose reformation has been more successful thus far, relative to expectations?
That's the question we're left to ask as the league's two highest-profile returns continue to unfold.
Bryant's return to the floor after appearing in only six games last season is playing out like a hard-knocks comedy.
There have been pleasant moments, trying moments, confusing moments, exasperating moments. The Lakers themselves aren't helping. Their makeshift roster promises collective struggles and has made it doubly difficult to find context in Bryant's performance.
It's been clear from the jump this isn't the same rim-rocking Bryant from 2004-05 or, for that matter, 2012-13. Interior assaults have been supplanted by additional post-ups, fadeaways, pull-ups, jukes and contact-creating forays into traffic.
Even the latter part of his offensive repertoire bears little resemblance to the fearless insurgent of years past. Bryant is no longer trying to go through people; he's more committed to going around them.
Not even 27 percent of his shot attempts are coming within eight feet of the basket. More than 50 percent, meanwhile, are coming outside 16 feet. This is a stark shift from 2012-13, his last full season, when almost one-third of his shots came inside eight feet.
To say he's been hesitant would be an unwarranted stretch. He's been more aware, visibly catering to physical limitations by relying on his jumper. And though that's made for a productive Bryant, it hasn't given way to an efficient Bryant.
As he chases his third scoring title, he does so while shooting under 40 percent from the floor. If his current averages hold, he'll finish with the second-lowest field-goal percentage (39.1) of anyone in NBA history to average at least 25 points per game.
Punchlines come by the bunches with every shot he heaves or forces. He's reverted to one-on-three more than a few times and, for a while, obviously hindered the Lakers' offensive attack.
But there's also a pleasant resolve about his turbulent performances. He's appeared in every game, is logging nearly 36 minutes a night and is on pace to have the highest usage rate—the percent of team plays run for a particular player—of anyone, aged 36 or older, in NBA history.
Inefficient displays haven't prevented him from rivaling—and in some cases exceeding—his career production either:
|Kobe Now vs. Kobe Then|
Some of Bryant's statistical potency can be attributed to the Lakers' declining state. A 36-year-old wouldn't be registering the second-highest usage rate of his career for a contender or even a team that plans on winning 35 games.
Then again, a 36-year-old shouldn't be carrying such a biting burden at all.
"I enjoy what I do so much," he told Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding. "I enjoy the preparation of it...I take a lot of pride in that, in having the challenge to work through year after year after year with different teams and different teammates and different coaching staffs, trying to work through all that stuff. I feel very fortunate."
That's the charming part of all this: No matter how many shots Bryant clangs off the rim, he's still playing, still shooting, still scoring, still trying to win games in his own, flawed, fantastically fanatical way.
It's almost as if nothing has changed.
Chicago's modestly successful start to 2014-15 has not allowed Rose to fly under the radar. He remains one of the league's most polarizing figures. His day-to-day status is the source of debate, each take hotter than next, as fans and pundits try to glean something meaningful from the years-long limbo the former MVP is still sparring.
Rose has missed nearly half (eight) of the Bulls' regular-season tilts thus far. When he has played, he's hardly set the world on fire. His overall performances have been middling and either encouraging or disheartening depending on the day.
|Rose Then vs. Rose Now|
Everything he does continues to be dissected and extrapolated and crammed with caveats as well.
Flashes of explosion have been semi-consistent. While Rose has seemingly adapted his game to meet the needs of his ongoing rehabilitation—roughly 52.7 percent of his shot attempts are coming outside 16 feet, compared to 40 percent in 2011-12—he has not shied away from attacking the heart of defenses.
More than 40 percent of his field-goal attempts have come within the paint and restricted area. And while he's averaging fewer drives per game than teammate Jimmy Butler, his hesitation has, for the most part, been minimal.
Still, there's this innate desire to make snap judgments and measure him against his 2010-11 campaign. Not only is that unfair, but it's unrealistic.
This is the same Rose who appeared in a combined 50 regular-season and playoff contests between 2011-12 and this season. There's no doubt his return has spurred questions about his future. Many of them are legitimate too. But like K.C. Johnson argued in an impassioned piece for the Chicago Tribune (subscription required), this is still a process that cannot yet give way to infectious skepticism:
Anyone doubting Rose's resolve overlooks the mental fortitude it took to rehabilitate back-to-back major knee injuries, the first of which occurred when he stood as the reigning NBA most valuable player. Anyone doubting Rose's competitiveness didn't see him overcome with emotion when asked at this summer's FIBA World Cup in Spain how it felt to be playing competitive basketball again.
Anyone doubting Rose's status within the team hasn't heard Joakim Noah passionately talk about Rose's rehab example motivating him and how much winning a championship with Rose would mean.
Perhaps Rose's return would be different if the Bulls needed it to be different. They're built so that they can navigate and survive his absence.
They're built for patience.
"I think everyone has to take a step back and be patient and let him go through this process," Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said in November, per The Associated Press (via NBA.com). "He's going to be special again, just be patient."
Have there been frustrations early on? Of course. The ever-protective Thibodeau has even been caught in temporary fits of disappointment, per ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. As deep as the Bulls are, they still need Rose to play. He makes them better.
When he's on the floor, their 12th-ranked offense becomes the equivalent of a top-eight attack. Their defense also allows 10.1 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's in the game. Opposing players are shooting just 41.6 percent against him, and when he's on the bench, the Bulls' defensive rating is identical to that of the bottom-feeding Philadelphia 76ers (105.5).
Just because his individual numbers aren't jaw-dropping doesn't mean he isn't making an impact. That the Bulls are winning 70 percent of their games when he's in the lineup says it all. He's still a pivotal part of what they do, and when he's able to assume the role they've set aside for him, they're that much more dangerous.
Who Ya Got?
Neither Bryant nor Rose can be written off or counted on solely for what they've done this season. It's still early. There is a lot of basketball left to play in 2014-15.
Each has also been impressive in his own way. Rose is a lock to play in more games this season than the previous two combined, and he's having a profound impact on both sides of the ball. Bryant still carts exacting workloads. Whether by choice, necessity or some combination of both, he's bearing burdens 19-year veterans typically don't ferry.
Given what we've both seen and know, though, our choice should be clear: It's Bryant who has enjoyed the more successful return.
No, he hasn't transformed his Lakers into surprising playoff contenders. And yes, their defense is a jumbled mess that has severely suffered from his limited lateral mobility. But the Lakers are fielding a 10th-ranked offense that's slightly more productive when he's in the game. Bryant also joins LeBron James, James Harden and Stephen Curry as the only players averaging at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists a night.
Not even the Lakers' sorry record or Bryant's sordid shooting percentages can diminish his on-court accomplishments. Where Rose is still at the mercy of forces beyond his control—his body, for one—Bryant has entered a different stage of his return.
Gone are the questions about if and when he'll play; he's logging more minutes than players 10 years his junior, like Rose himself. Previous doubts have instead been displaced by inquiries into how he'll play and how that style will impact the Lakers' free-agent sales pitches.
And until Rose can reach a point where his style and substance take precedence over availability, he will trail Bryant. His team will be better, the role that awaits him equally prominent, the games he plays more meaningful.
For now, though, Bryant is the fallen giant finally standing on his feet, edging out a star-crossed peer who, at this moment, has yet to find his footing.