Derrick Rose entered Wednesday's road game against the Orlando Magic as the strange and sad thing he has been since tearing his ACL at the onset of the NBA playoffs back in April of 2012: more a concept than a human basketball player. Rose, the NBA's defending MVP at the time of his injury, went on to play in a total of 10 games over the next two years. He has played in just 46 games in this, the year of his second unduly hyped return. Rose's most recent injury, another torn meniscus, sidelined him for just 20 games; it sounds bad, but would qualify as a routine injury for virtually any other player. But the routine, for Rose, is not what it is for anyone else.
This is because Rose is not like any other NBA player. He was better, when he was healthy, than just about anyone in the league. He has been more unlucky than just about anyone since then. At 26, he has already been through the day-to-day sports media thresher enough times to make us think he's 50. Analysts and fans, in Chicago and elsewhere, have—in the absence of Actual Basketball-Playing Derrick Rose—gone in some truly weird directions with Derrick Rose The Idea. The latest is that Chicago's team is better without him.
And while we don't know exactly who Rose "is" as a player in 2015, it's certainly clear that this is an idiotic argument. Those who persist in doubting that Rose still has a positive impact on the game evoke the early skeptics of Copernicus, in their righteous fury and their wrongheadedness. The earth is much smaller than the sun, and an extremely fast, frightfully powerful point guard makes life a lot easier for his professional basketball team.
Derrick, even in his most foolish, inefficient, and rustiest of forms, has boatloads of that rarest of NBA qualities: gravitas. Whether because of the visceral terror his seamless changes in speed evoke in opposing defenders or his uncannily quick mid-air instincts—or because of the lingering epic narrative of a stunning rise into his place as the youngest MVP in league history, or because of a blend of all of these things—defenses respect and fear Rose. He may turn the ball over too much, and he may also have nights when he throws up enough bricks from outside to build a twin for the Trump Tower he lives in, but it doesn't especially matter. The Bulls are still, as they have always been, a far better team with Rose than they are without him, and their postseason prospects rise considerably with his return.
Against Orlando, we saw an encouraging, if compromised, version of that truth. Rose's usage limit—a topic of endless and unflattering furor within his organization—ensured that he was on the floor for only 19 minutes; he looked spry, if conservative, through most of them. That's to be expected when a player comes back from time off, and especially for one who relies so heavily on elite athleticism. We did get this, though:
Rose's stat line wasn't exactly beautiful: he shot 3-of-9 from the floor, including a 1-for-6 mark from three-point land—a statistic sure to be hurled around by haters on Windy City radio shows today. He also had four turnovers. The Bulls likely expected a sloppy first outing back from Rose, which would explain why they reinstated him against a lousy team like the Magic. That lousy team beat the Bulls, 105-103, after a bad fourth quarter that saw no action from Derrick.
But the real big question for the Bulls has never been whether they're better with Rose—they are. It's if they're good enough with him, and if they can get him aligned with the team's rhythm in time for the playoffs. If they finish on the right side of their tight race with the Toronto Raptors and secure the three seed, the Bulls will essentially earn a bye round against the flailing young Milwaukee Bucks, who are 8-16 since the All-Star break. This would allow Rose to get some extra practice games under him. This is the ideal scenario. If they lose out to the Raptors and draw John Wall and the Washington Wizards—also flailing, this being the Eastern Conference playoff picture, if not nearly as egregiously as the Bucks—things could get dicey.
Rose's truncated five-game run at season's end is now a pressure cooker. As such it's a fitting metaphor for the way he's been evaluated since his injury problems began—aggressively and non-stop, despite minuscule sample sizes of actual basketball product.
For all the wild, tragicomic intrigue that has defined this latest and weirdest Bulls season, much of it has had little to do with Rose. Rose is no longer an MVP candidate, or the Bulls' #AllDay workhorse; he hasn't been for years. Today, he's something like a secret weapon—a special extra ingredient, a catalytic X-factor. Depending on how the Bulls finish out the year, he'll still be cast as either the pariah or the hero of his team. Neither will be fair, but Derrick Rose hasn't gotten a fair deal in a long time.