The Derrick Rose Conundrum

After playing for four different teams in four years, the 2010-11 MVP has remade himself into the kind of player who might win a contender a title, but can the Detroit Pistons afford to let him go?
photo of Ric BucherRic Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterJuly 9, 2020

Too fragile to buy high. Too good to sell low. And at this point, probably too late to do either.

That's the predicament the Detroit Pistons find themselves in with 2010-11 NBA MVP Derrick Rose, who in his career has gone from franchise cornerstone to injury-plagued afterthought to All-Star contender in the last two seasons by simply proving he still could make an impact.

"He reappeared and did it in a really good way," one rival team president said. As in, his return to stardom occurred on non-marquee teams (Timberwolves, Pistons) in smaller markets (Minneapolis, Detroit), and rather than grouse about being disrespected or having to prove himself on a basketball court all over again, he expressed profound gratitude for the chance to show he was still an NBA-caliber point guard. So much so that the Pistons felt they could acquire a first-round pick for Rose only to be rebuffed at the trade deadline this season.

Neither his attitude nor accomplishment, though, makes the job of the Pistons' new general manager, Troy Weaver, any easier. Or that of head coach Dwane Casey. Rose certainly demonstrated at times over the last two seasons that he can be as effective as he was in leading the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons, including all the way to the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals.

That Rose seemed practically indestructible, missing only six of 246 regular-season games while averaging 37.1 minutes per game and upping that to 41.9 minutes in the playoffs. They were particularly demanding minutes as well, what without another All-Star playmaker on the roster.

To be sure, this Rose is no longer that Rose. While last season he had his first career 50-point performance for the Minnesota Timberwolves to beat the Utah Jazz, he also had four games in which he played 16 minutes or fewer and then wasn't available the next game. Overall, he appeared in 51 of 82 games.

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This year was only slightly better durability-wise. His usage percentage—an estimate of how many Pistons plays involved him when he was on the floor—mirrored LeBron James' with the Lakers this season (31.6). He led Detroit in both points (18.1) and assists (5.6) while shooting a career-high 49 percent from the field despite averaging a modest 26 minutes, good enough to inspire talk of All-Star recognition after an eight-year hiatus and Sixth Man of the Year consideration. But whereas LeBron played 60 of the Lakers' 63 games, Rose appeared in 50 of the Pistons' 66.

"You can't fall into thinking he can still play 36 minutes a night 75 nights a year," a Western Conference executive said. "Those days are over."

That he has recaptured any semblance of his former self is a revelation. No league MVP has ever been subsequently discarded more times. Then again, no league MVP, other than Bill Walton, has suffered a similar run of injuries in his prime, either.

Over his eight-year career with the Bulls, Rose missed 257 games, including a span of four seasons in which he missed 220, largely because of a torn ACL in his left knee and torn cartilage (twice) in his right knee. Reluctant to build around him after his slew of injuries, the Bulls, his hometown team, traded him to the New York Knicks in June 2016. The Knicks let his contract run out and did not re-sign him after one season.

The Cleveland Cavaliers signed him to a minimum deal the next season, only to trade him seven months later to the Jazz, who summarily waived him. The rest of the league took a collective pass on him for nearly a month before his former coach, Tom Thibodeau, enlisted him for the last few weeks of the 2017-18 season to help drag the Timberwolves to their only playoff appearance in the last 16 seasons.

"The biggest blessing I ever had was going to New York," Rose said in the fall on a podcast with me. "Going to New York, I figured out a way to be the third option and play a totally different way. It showed me I didn't have to be the first or second option. ... It helped me play with a little bit more poise. It helped me figure out to be more efficient ... and find out ways to affect the game by not only just scoring."

Derrick Rose's revived play in Detroit generated talk in NBA circles that he might be dealt to a contender at the trade deadline, but some execs felt the Pistons' asking price was too high.
Derrick Rose's revived play in Detroit generated talk in NBA circles that he might be dealt to a contender at the trade deadline, but some execs felt the Pistons' asking price was too high.Barry Gossage/Getty Images

His injury history wasn't the only reason teams steered clear of signing him. In 2015, a woman filed a civil lawsuit accusing Rose and two of his friends of raping her while she was intoxicated in 2013. A jury deemed the allegation not credible, but further questions were raised during the trial when Rose admitted he didn't know the meaning of consent.

Then there were his curious disappearances from both the Knicks and Cavs as he struggled to recapture his love for the game and adjust to a far more limited role, a crisis of confidence that had him contemplating quitting.

"It has something to do with me, for sure," he said on the podcast of his month as a basketball outcast. "I left New York; I didn't tell anyone. I'm man enough to ... accept that."

He stopped viewing himself as a former MVP and three-time All-Star in Minnesota and stopped worrying about reclaiming that status. He also read up on how mental stress is related to physical health.

"I said from now on, just be a professional about whatever situation I'm in," Rose said. "... I had to put all those accolades in the past and just start over. I know I won't be the last Derrick Rose, with all the injuries and whatever. So I could be the example for the next guy that's going through something ... or the next kid. ... If I can get through it, I believe anybody can get through it."

Thibodeau was dismissed by the Timberwolves midway through the following season, and the team failed to make it two postseason appearances in a row, but Rose's 50-point game, career-high three-point shooting percentage (37) and willingness to play behind a far less accomplished point guard (Jeff Teague) prompted the league to reset its view on him.

Instead of the focus being on what he no longer was, it shifted to what he still could be. He was no longer the humble kid fearlessly stepping into Michael Jordan's shoes, determined to lead his hometown Bulls back to glory. But while the mission had to be revised and the signature explosive drives rationed, the fearlessness and humility remained.

"I look at him like Lou Williams, an explosive scorer off the bench," the Western Conference executive said. "Or Dennis Schroder, a monster in a three-guard lineup."

The Pistons saw him the same way when they signed him last summer to a two-year, $15 million deal. They were hoping that a combination of power forward Blake Griffin, center Andre Drummond, small forward Markieff Morris, combo guard Reggie Jackson and Rose would be good enough to secure a second straight trip to the playoffs and possibly even lead to winning a postseason series.

"A lot of people didn't understand my decision with coming to Detroit," he said on the podcast. "... I see something with the team that nobody else sees with us being in the East."

Those plans were crushed by knee issues that limited All-Star Griffin to 18 games and prompted season-ending surgery in January. The Pistons pivoted and dealt Drummond to the Cavs, waived Jackson and bought out Morris. They also explored trading Rose, league sources say, hoping to pluck a first-round pick from a team looking to bolster its playoff chances by adding Rose, as the Timberwolves once did.

Rose's reunion with his former coach with the Bulls, Tom Thibodeau, in Minnesota helped convince many NBA decision-makers that Rose could still score at an elite level.
Rose's reunion with his former coach with the Bulls, Tom Thibodeau, in Minnesota helped convince many NBA decision-makers that Rose could still score at an elite level.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

The Lakers were supposedly interested, several league sources said, but salary-cap rules prevented them from trading this year's first-round pick because they dealt their 2021 pick to New Orleans, in part, to acquire Anthony Davis.

They weren't alone in their interest, but according to an Eastern Conference GM, those teams were trying to get him on the cheap. "You had people calling for him, but when it came to paying..."

Apparently no team was willing to pay, at least not enough to satisfy the Pistons.

The rival team president, who was not in the market for a point guard at the time, expressed surprise at that. "I thought he would have more value," he said. "He can't defend at a high level, but he can score with the best of them." Indeed, his ability to make big plays in big moments remains intact—he had several game-winning shots this season, including a game-winner against New Orleans that completed a 17-point fourth quarter for Rose.

In hindsight, the Pistons, the Western Conference executive said, should've taken whatever they could have gotten. Whether it was simply getting a younger quality player or a couple of second-round picks, adding to their relatively limited trove of rebuilding resources would've been the smart play. Detroit has its own first-round picks for the foreseeable future, but the Pistons don't have a 2020 second-round pick. Their only second-round pick in 2021 is from the Lakers. They also have the lesser second-round pick between Golden State's and Cleveland's in 2023, acquired in the Drummond deal. They don't have the rights to their own second-round pick until 2024.

"The ask was too great," the Western Conference executive said. "They totally mishandled that. It was the perfect time to move him. He was the ultimate rental at the trade deadline. You could keep him fresh for the playoffs and still have him next year on a very cap-friendly deal. He would've made a first-round playoff team into a second-round team, and he would've put the Lakers or the Clippers over the top."

Even if the Pistons had found a deal to their liking, it may not have been easy to pull off given Rose's longstanding relationship with Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem, who previously was the vice chairman of Wasserman Media Group, which represents Rose. BJ Armstrong, Rose's agent, worked with Tellem at WMG and was a Tellem client during his playing days.

Point being: Ed Stefanski, a senior adviser to Pistons owner Tom Gores who handled the GM duties until Weaver's hiring last month, undoubtedly did not have clearance to trade Rose without Tellem's—and perhaps even Rose's—OK.

Preserving the relationship, however, left the Pistons without the goods to do much else. "They don't have any [other] assets," the Western Conference executive said. "Derrick is the only thing that gets you something."

The Pistons do have the fifth-worst record this season, which gives them a shot at a top pick in the draft. They were also projected to have $30 million in salary-cap room, though the financial impact of the coronavirus shutdown could change that.

Considering Rose's popularity and the uncertainty surrounding Griffin's health, one Eastern Conference GM would understand if Weaver opted to keep Rose rather than sell him for whatever he can get. Rose turns 32 in October.

"Can he be 35-minute-a-night Derrick Rose?" the GM asked. "No. But can he be Derrick Rose at 25-27 minutes a night for two, three more seasons? He's older, but in a way he's not older because he missed so much time. That's years of wear and tear he didn't put on his body."

That Rose chose to be in Detroit is another consideration. Most NBA veterans with options are looking to live in locales with better weather and more robust social and business scenes than the Motor City. But Rose feels a connection with Detroit.

"It's a gritty city. It's kind of like how I play and what I represent—the struggle—and I can just relate," he said on the podcast.

Don't underestimate the value of that for selling tickets, the Eastern Conference GM said. The Pistons have a new downtown arena to fill, and convincing their more affluent fans, who live closer to their old arena in Auburn Hills, to make the trek requires a drawing card.

"He fits the market," the GM said. "People in Detroit identify with him. It just depends on what you put around him. It's worth the gamble."

   

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @RicBucher.

Bucher hosts the podcast Bucher & Friends with NFL veteran Will Blackmon and former NBA center Ryan Hollins, available on iTunes.


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