They need the version of him that hasn't existed for nearly three years, and that's a problem.
Let's not trot out the doom and gloom just yet. It's an undeniably positive development that Rose, who underwent surgery to remove a piece of torn meniscus in his right knee on Feb. 27, is expected to play Wednesday vs. the Orlando Magic. Per Nick Friedell of ESPN Chicago:
Chicago is (and should be) happy about that.
"Just him being on the floor helps our team," Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau told reporters Tuesday, per the Tribune's Paul Skrbina. "We've done it enough times where we know he's going to start off slowly, and we'll go from there."
Where exactly the Bulls go will depend on how much Rose can give them. Not necessarily in the closing stretch of the regular season—they're safely settled in at No. 3 in the East with no danger of losing home-court advantage in the first round.
The concern is the playoffs.
Unfortunately, Rose's latest return comes at a time when the Bulls have all of the same voids to fill and less certainty than ever that Rose is the man to fill them.
They need someone to break down the defense in the half court. They need someone to create chaos in transition. They need a highlight-generator to inject some excitement into the home fans.
Every injury and ensuing layoff make it harder to believe Rose can provide that kind of help. Add up the lost years to those initial knee injuries, his shaky play this season and the latest setback, and you've got a player whose body and game simply cannot be what they once were.
At this point, any expectation Rose will be better now than he was earlier in the 2014-15 season is unrealistic. Whether he can even be as good (modest though that goal may be) is the real question.
Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times put a fine point on the uncertainty attending Rose's latest return:
So when Bulls general manager Gar Forman said on Feb. 27—the day of Rose’s surgery—that Rose 'should be back to where he was' following a short rehabilitation, the unasked follow-up was 'Where he was when? If it’s where he was when he suffered the second meniscus tear this season, the Bulls ascendancy to postseason contender upon Rose’s return might be problematic.
Chicago cannot expect Rose to offer MVP-caliber production like he did when he was last healthy. Nothing we've seen of post-injury (the first one) Rose suggests that's remotely possible.
The guy coming back averaged 18.4 points per game on 40.7 percent shooting from the field while hitting at a 28.7 percent accuracy rate from deep. For a Bulls team currently ranked 14th in true shooting percentage and 10th in offensive efficiency overall, per NBA.com, Rose may not offer much help.
That's not to say his presence will be a negative. In a limited sample this year, the Bulls were better with Rose on the floor, posting a net rating of plus-4.0 points per 100 possessions with him against a plus-2.3 without him, according to NBA.com.
In an ideal world, Rose would break out the head-down attack mode he shelved for most of the 2014-15 season before he got hurt. His free-throw rate of .224 (meaning he attempted about five times as many field goals as free throws) was his lowest rate in any full season since his rookie year.
It was clear Rose preferred hoisting triples (despite the putrid accuracy rate) over barreling into the lane earlier this season. His 6.3 attempts per 36 minutes from deep were a career high.
It's hard to blame him, given the origin of his injuries and whatever lingering hesitancy they created.
If Rose can return to his hard-charging ways, the Bulls offense could reach new heights. The draw-and-kick game would get a fantastic boost, the transition attack could blossom and even the pick-and-roll would grow fangs with an aggressive Rose threatening to turn the corner and assault the rim.
If he was merely saving himself for the point in the season when his skills could truly help (aka the playoffs), Rose could completely overhaul Chicago's offense.
But based on what we've seen and the added factor of this latest injury, it makes a lot more sense to view the scaled-back game we saw from Rose earlier this year as a symptom of inability instead of unwillingness.
It's not that Rose didn't want to play like he used to. It's that he couldn't.
Not for extended stretches anyway.
Barring a miraculous return to form, Rose's ceiling this postseason is as a net-positive contributor who offers the occasional flash of his former self.
That may not be enough to appreciably change Chicago's playoff fate. Not with the Cleveland Cavaliers crushing the league since a mid-January roster shakeup.
Not with the Atlanta Hawks boasting the kind of continuity and systemic strength the Bulls can't touch.
In order to join the East's current two-team elite (Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks), Chicago needs Rose to be a star. And if that sounds at all familiar, it's because that was the exact same narrative attached to the Bulls heading into this season.
Big additions in Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic figured to make the Bulls a more balanced offensive team. Coupled with the projected growth of Jimmy Butler and the presumed improvement in health for Joakim Noah, a healthy Rose was the missing link.
The guy who'd put Chicago over the top.
Instead of salvation, Rose offered solid play. Another knee injury and another layoff don't point to him giving more than that now.
It turns out the Bulls need Rose to be something he can't be anymore: his old self.