Monday, November 25, 2013

Bulls Lose Rose to Another Season Ending Knee Injury

11 games. That’s all we got to see before another earth-shattering, devastating, franchise-changing injury to Derrick Rose stopped this season before it even got started. In what initially appeared to be a minor tweak in yet another non-contact play, Derrick Rose’s career – and the hopes of a franchise completely bought in on him – may never be the same. All of the hard work he put in after missing 18 months with a torn ACL in his other knee, all of the angst and criticism he heard from fans and the media – none of that matters now as he has the same long path ahead. The future of Derrick Rose, the near future of the Bulls franchise, and even the future of some of the players on the team are all now huge question marks. It really couldn’t get any worse. 

At first, we were told that he had torn a meniscus and that it wasn’t nearly as bad as tearing his ACL. Given that Russell Westbrook had suffered a similar injury at the end of last season and appeared to be ready to play sooner than Rose’s ACL injury, the thought was that he would be able to return later this season. Then late yesterday, news that Rose and the Bulls were leaning towards full meniscus reattachment surgery meant that what we initially feared was now true: Derrick Rose will miss the rest of the season. 

After this season is over, he will have played in only 50 games in the last three seasons. You feel terrible for Rose, as he’s one of those rare modern athletes who sits at the pinnacle of his profession yet does it with rare humility and respect. You feel terrible for his teammates; Joakim Noah was despondent after Friday’s game, almost refusing to even come to terms with the injury. You feel for the Bulls organization, who have invested so much in Derrick and essentially based the entire near-future of their organization on him. And yeah, us fans feel sorry for ourselves. Not only are we deprived of watching him this season, but we have no idea what player will return to us next year. Is Derrick this generation’s Grant Hill?

I’ve spent the last couple days trying to wrap my brain around this. Derrick has been one of my favorite athletes to watch in recent memory. I've lived the same ups and downs he has during his career and feel it personally when he's been so horribly injured. When he was drafted, it seemed like a perfect match; the electric kid from Chicago, returning home to take his Bulls back to the top. The excitement and expectations were only raised during his spectacular MVP year, when we all realized (if we didn’t know before) what a truly special, generational talent we had. The fact that he was so humble, so hard-working, so driven, and such a good teammate only endeared himself more to fans. When he got hurt in 2012, I wrote that it felt like a member of our extended family went down. Sports isn’t fair, and always seems to take the best and brightest away from us either too soon or for too long. With the first knee injury, I felt for him. We endured the ACL rehab, respected (most of us, anyways) from afar as he took his time, and tried to bite our tongues as he took his time to return the right way for his career. For this new injury to occur, 11 games into a comeback season that he had worked extremely hard for, is heartbreaking beyond belief.

The old Derrick was just starting to return
It seems harsh to start wondering about next year, given that a major, potentially career-altering injury just hit one of our favorite athletes, and that his team still has almost an entire season to play without him. But we know, both from the way the Bulls have already played this year and the fact that it is highly unlikely they proceed very far without him, that next year is just as important for our purposes as this year. Given the importance Rose has for this franchise, the logical next question is to wonder what is next.

We don’t know for sure what is going to happen. All that we do know for sure is that Rose will work as hard as he ever has to return in top form. He’ll grind out excruciating rehab, he’ll support his teammates, and I’m sure he’ll infuriate media members and fickle fans when he either doesn’t come back soon enough or give the right soundbite. But in all reality, that is the one thing we do know for sure here. The unknowns are the scary part.

What unknowns? Well for starters, what kind of player will Derrick be when he returns? All we have to base that on are past player experience and Rose’s first knee injury. Admittedly, this one isn’t as “serious” as the last, but it is still serious enough to sideline him for the season. I guess this is in large part due to his decision to seek full reattachment, which is the safer route long-term. Derrick returned from his first ACL injury bigger, stronger, and you could even argue, faster. He increased his vertical leap and seemed just as explosive as ever. When he got hurt against Portland, he was just starting to find his groove and get back into the swing of things. Everyone who thought they had seen a declining Rose because he wasn’t up to par 11 games into his first regular season action in 18 months is crazy, stupid, or both.

On the player comparison side of things, Russell Westbrook (a great comparison in terms of size, explosiveness, and overall playing style) returned along the same timeline as Rose (about 6-7 months) will and looks fantastic. The problem is, he had to have touch-up surgery a month before the season started due to swelling. My guess is that, plus Derrick’s previous ACL tear, played into the decision to take their time with this rehab. After all, Rose is still only 25 and the Bulls now more than ever want to protect his future. At the same time, though, it will help that they have a perfect player comparison to go by, and extensive rehab experience with the other knee as well.

My guess, based on this, is that Derrick will return the same type of player he is now. I remember reading that he was averse to stretching and other pregame/workout routines throughout his days in high school and college (and probably his first seasons in the NBA), so perhaps his explosive playing style took its toll on his knees and made him more susceptible to injury. Or, he’s just damn unlucky. Regardless, I think that he will be similar in terms of explosiveness when he returns that he is now. The problem for him will be retaining and redeveloping his basketball skills. Missing 2 full seasons can’t help that situation whatsoever.

The Bulls face some major issues, but I don’t think they’re as serious as we think. The franchise heads into the summer of 2014 already planning to rebuild on the fly. Luol Deng’s contract is expiring, and unless they can get a reduced rate than what he is currently making, it is likely he heads elsewhere. This will allow the Bulls to make the right decision to move Jimmy Butler back to his natural SF position, especially considering how off he has looked at shooting guard. The Bulls will almost certainly amnesty Carlos Boozer this summer as well, freeing up cap space and roster space. With the money, I’d expect them to try and make a move in the 14 market to acquire a shooting guard who can play off the wing and create his own scoring opportunities to take the scoring load off Rose. These situations were going to happen even if Rose played this entire year.

The problem is, though, the Bulls cannot be 100% positive they will get the same Derrick back. I do believe we will see the same type of player return, but what if he doesn’t? What if we do have a Grant Hill on our hands, a player who is immensely talented but consistently significantly injured? In that case, the Bulls are looking at a serious rebuilding project. Since they won’t know whether or not they need to do this until Derrick does in fact come back, there is no sense panicking about the future now. Let the situation play out; if Derrick comes back and isn’t nearly the same player that we’re used to, the Bulls already have nearly $100 million invested in him. This means the rebuild will be required anyways. And if he does come back stronger or even the same player as he used to be, then the Bulls were already preparing for that all along.

To be sure, the future of the Bulls is now murky. The team has to at least have contingencies planned in case Rose does not return the same player. But those contingencies are limited considering the salary cap restraints the team will have even if they jettison Boozer and let Deng walk. The team is better off preparing for his return like they did last year. You have a capable backup point guard in Hinrich; I think the Bulls have to certainly make an effort to keep Hinrich if they’re not comfortable with Marquis Teague (and why would they be?). The team should head into the summer of '14 ready to make a play at a big free agent to pair with Rose. If all else fails, at least they have another top player to try and rebuild on the fly with. Or who knows, maybe the Bulls really tank it down the stretch and pick the right year to land a top draft pick. Knowing Tom Thibodeau, though, that isn’t likely.

Once the dust settles, the Bulls and us fans will realize that it is only one season. Granted, that’s two now back to back, but Rose is still a young player and this injury is significantly better than the last. It sucks as fans, and it sucks to know that Rose will have to go through another horrible rehab process, but from all the years watching Rose thus far, has he ever given up on anything? He’s the type of player to return strong, ready to prove the doubters wrong. The Bulls have to be worrying behind closed doors, but their hands are already tied to Rose for the near future. At this point, there’s really nothing they can do but pursue the status quo until summer, when they surely will have a better bead on where Rose is as a player. For now, though, we have to grin and bear it, struggling through another Rose-less Bulls’ season. Watching him struggle through yet another debilitating injury isn't easy for those of us who have grown to admire him, but stick with it though, Bulls fans. Derrick will return.