Waiting for Derrick

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It’s difficult to feel sympathy for Bulls fans; at least in the same way you would feel for fans of the Raptors, Clippers, Warriors, and Timberwolves—oh the dangers of doing knuckle pushups! The Bulls dominated basketball in the 90s. Their fans got to witness the NBA trophy paraded through their city on six separate occasions during that decade, and more profoundly, they had the honour of witnessing the greatest player of all time, Mr. Michael Jordan, suit up in their colours for 14 years.

Admittedly, however, the Bulls entered a rough patch after ‘98—success doesn’t last forever. The heady days of Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, and Phil Jackson coaching from the sidelines, must have seemed like a lifetime away for Bulls fans watching the likes of Eddy Curry and Jerome Williams. Those difficult post-Jordan years help explain why Bulls fans have been reenergized over the past few seasons. Winning again is all the more sweet after going through a few years of losing.

This season, although unlikely to be as bad on the court as those early post-Jordan years, is set to provide its own set of challenges and difficulties for the fans in Chicago.

The Highs and the Lows

2008 saw the start of a new era in Chicago: the Derrick Rose era. Rose, if you can remember that far back, announced his arrival in the NBA with that blistering 36-point playoff debut against the defending champion Boston Celtics. In-fact, Rose tied the record for most points scored by a rookie in his playoff debut—Kareem setting the record back in 1970. In the past two seasons, Rose has won the MVP (2010-2011), the Bulls have won a combined 112 games (don’t forget that they hit 50 in a shortened season), and the team has finished with the best record in each of those seasons.

But after much promise heading into the playoffs, the wheels came off for the Bulls last season. We’ve all seen the video 1000 times. Rose attacking the basket in garbage time of Game 1 against the 76ers, tearing his ACL as he plants his left leg down on the drive. It’s still tough to watch. And it was tough for the Bulls to win after that.

Even though the Bulls have been a well-rounded team over the past couple seasons, their reliance on Rose from an offensive standpoint cannot be overstated. Defensively the Bulls have been excellent, and should continue to be so this season, but Rose gives them a completely different dimension on offense—as he would to most teams, to be fair. For the remainder of the 76ers series the Bulls struggled, finding it hard to even hit 80 points. The Bulls compensated for Rose’s absences during the regular season admirably, but in the playoffs, when the game slows down, it becomes essential to have players who can beat defenders off the dribble.

Rose was, and still is, the only player on the Bulls who can consistently create his own shot, the only player who has the freakish speed and athleticism to draw in defenders as he explodes to the basket, creating open looks for teammates in the process.

The Bulls are going to have to do without that player for a number of months, of course. Initial, albeit very optimistic, estimates were for a January return. Rose is one of the hardest working athletes around, but ACL tears are no joke. Many estimate that it takes a full year to come back from such an injury. A March-April return might be the best that Bulls fans can hope for, but Rose missing the entire season is a distinct possibility.

Succeeding Without Rose

Of course, how soon Rose returns to the Bulls lineup depends in part on how well the team does in his absence, and where they are come playoff time. Which leads us to an interesting question: Are the Bulls currently good enough to contend, or simply make the playoffs, without Derrick Rose, or is this season a complete write-off?

Losing a top-5 NBA player would be a massive blow to any team, but there’s still enough talent on this Bulls roster to make them competitive this year. However, a lot will be required from Luol Deng, who will need to pick up much of the scoring load in Rose’s absence.

Deng is still very underrated. As well as being a fantastic perimeter defender, he’s a capable offensive talent—a first time all-star last year don’t forget—and has quietly developed into an on-court leader over the past few seasons. In the frontcourt, Joachim Noah, although not known principally as a scorer, is a vocal leader (he’s definitely not quiet) and has the defensive acumen to keep the Bulls more than solid on that end.

Unfortunately, Deng and Noah have both had their fair share of injuries over the past few seasons. If the Bulls lose either one for an extended period, it could spell trouble. And while we’re on the subject of negatives, two of the Bulls’ potential starting-5 have been on a steady decline. Shooting-guard Rip Hamilton, because of injuries and age, has looked like a shadow of his former self, while Carlos Boozer has been an all-round bust in Chicago.

Boozer will find himself on a short leash with fans and management this year. Fan favourite and defensive stud Taj Gibson seems poised to take Boozer’s spot at power forward, if the former all-star continues his mediocre play. There’s even some talk that the Bulls may decide to amnesty Boozer if Gibson fills in nicely as a starter.

Of course, last season Gibson was part of a very successful second unit, known to fans as the Bench Mob. Much of that group, to the chagrin of many supporters, left Chicago in the offseason. Gone are C.J. Watson (Nets), Ronnie Brewer (Knicks), John Lucas III (Raptors), Kyle Korver (Hawks), and the extremely talented Omer Asik (Rockets). The players who have come in to replace them are definitely not comparable as a collective-unit. Asik’s replacement as back-up centre is Nazr Mohammed, not exactly the defense game-changer that Asik was at times, while the likes of Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson (to back up Kirk Hinrich), and Vladimir Radmanovic, aren’t exciting too many Bulls fans.

But exciting or not, the fact remains that even with a far less dynamic bench, and a defensive specialist in Hinrich at point guard, as opposed to a transcendent superstar, the Bulls should have enough talent to make the playoffs. They definitely won’t be in the hunt for first place in the East, nor will they win their division—the Pacers are now the class of the Central Division—but it’s reasonable to expect them to grab the 5th or 6th seed. With the rebirth of the Nets, the East has gotten better, but there are still plenty of mediocre teams, especially in Chicago’s division—the Bucks, Pistons and Cavs, shouldn’t scare Thibodeau’s boys too much. The Bulls are still a very well coached team, who can play very solid team-defense (not exactly a common trait in the NBA), and they have some talented pieces.

To Return, or not to Return?

Regardless of the fact that the Bulls won’t drop off into lottery-team obscurity without Rose, this will be a frustrating season for Bulls fans. A competitive team is not the same as a potential championship team, and fans will be counting down the days until Rose returns. If the team performs worse than expected, the clamor for Rose to return this year should die down, and the rational consensus will be that he should take the entire season off to rehab. However, if the Bulls resemble a half-decent team come the all-star break, Rose might feel under a little more pressure to return. But should he return this year, regardless of the situation?

Undoubtedly Rose is working harder than anyone to get back onto the court, and there’s no question that he’d want to return to the Bulls lineup this year. Whether his return would alter the course of their season, however, is highly doubtful. They won’t win a championship this year, with or without Rose in the lineup. Even if Rose does manage to return at some point this season, his impact won’t be enough to justify the risk. Granted, it would give the team a major psychological boost, but Rose won’t be game-sharp, and it’s still unclear as to how long it will take for him, once he does return, to regain that lighting-quick first step.

An ACL tear was probably the worst type of injury that could happen to a player like Rose—a guy who relies on his explosive speed, agility, and a complete lack of concern for his physical well-being in the lane. I’m not saying that Rose won’t regain all those attributes, I’m just questioning whether it would be worth the risk to have him back this season at all. Management won’t need to be convinced of this, but the fiery competitor that is Derrick Rose, will have to be. He’d probably play tomorrow if it were asked of him.

This season, although it shouldn’t be disastrous, might be a little depressing for Bulls fans. After feeling like they were so close to something special over the past two years, they’re back to playing the waiting game. But Rose’s absence should bother all NBA fans, not just those living in the Windy City. He’s a special talent, one of the most unique players in the game, and while it’s easy to push his absence out of our minds, especially because of the glut of talent that exists in today’s NBA, the game is worse off without him.

The Bulls will survive without Rose this year, as will the NBA, but as basketball fans, we should all be looking forward to his return.

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