Luol Deng and Joakim Noah will be heading to Houston to represent the Bulls at the NBA All-Star Game just over two weeks from now, but forgive Chicago if the grandiose exhibition isn't the most seminal moment of the weekend. The All-Star break represents something bigger this year. It represents the return of Derrick Rose.
This is the weekend that's been circled by Rose's handlers ever since Chicago's franchise star underwent surgery to repair his torn ACL on May 12. Now, it's just 15 days away. We're getting closer to that moment foreshadowed by an adidas commercial, when Chicago's pain subsides and the city stops in awe and appreciation for the return of its hometown hero.
Chicago is ready for this. You can see it in the way people gawk at Rose when he hoists jumpers at shootaround before games, over-analyzing his lift, his release point and the arc on his uncontested shots. He's taking more contact at practice every week, and Noah can only smile when asked about his progress. D. Rose is coming back to save the Bulls, and the moment will be here before you know it.
There are plenty of hints as to what Rose will be like in his first days back on the court, as ACL tears have become about as trendy as oversized lensless glasses for today's top athletes. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson came back from the same injury already quicker than Rose will have and finished just nine yards short of the NFL's all-time single-season rushing record. More appropriately, Iman Shumpert of the Knicks (who tore his ACL on the same day as Rose) and Ricky Rubio of the Timberwolves have also returned from the same injury with varied results for their teams.
It's a safe bet that Rose will play around 20 minutes or so for his first two weeks back, assuming Tom Thibodeau can somehow resist the temptation to run his signature star into the ground right of the bat. He likely won't play in the second half of a back-to-backs. That's how Shumpert and Rubio have been treated. The Bulls will be cautious because they know the franchise's fate rests on how Rose recovers. For Rose to be at his most destructive, the Bulls need Rose to be back to his explosive self. That's why this was always such a scary injury for a star who relies almost exclusively on raw athleticism to find success.
How explosive will Rose be upon his return? Consider that Peterson didn't have a run longer than 20 yards for the first four weeks of the NFL season. He didn't bust one longer than 34 yards the first seven weeks. But as he gradually started to get healthier, Peterson gashed opposing defenses for runs of 82, 82, 74, 64 and 61 yards in the final nine weeks.
Shumpert also relies heavily on the athleticism he's been blessed with, and the early returns have been promising. Watch video highlights of his first game back: he certainly doesn't look like someone fresh off a major knee injury as he skies for a dunk at the :33 second mark or when he glides between the defense for a layup at the :55 second mark.
Shumpert has only played five games so it's a fool's game to analyze his numbers too much, but they're still interesting. Per NBA.com, Shumpert has taken more attempts from less than five feet than from anywhere else on the floor since his return. He's only 2-for-10, but it shows that he can still get to the rim. You can also expect Rose to jack more three-pointers, as he's had plenty of time to work on his shot during his recovery. Shumpert is doing it too, taking 4.7 three-pointers per 36 minutes this season, as opposed to 3.3 last season. Shumpert's free throw attempts have also fallen from 2.3 to 1.5 per 36 minutes.
Rose should be just fine, though ... eventually. You realize that the letters ACL don't even appear in succession on Jamal Crawford's Wikipedia page, right? Crawford tore his ACL after his rookie season in a pickup game with Michael Jordan. He talked to the Tribune's K.C. Johnson about his recovery the day after Rose went down.
"Then, after surgery, you start rehab and start to see some progressions. You get a little more confident as it goes along. And then the last stage is the mental part: 'Can I still do that move? Can I still do that cut?' The actual leg you injure ends up being stronger than the leg that's not injured. But you don't believe that at first. You're scared. You doubt."
Make no mistake: those moves and those cuts will be paramount to the Bulls' success this season and beyond. Rose is skilled player blessed with great basketball instincts, but he thrives because of his athleticism. For a few good examples, I went back and found what I consider to be the best game of Rose's career: his 44-point explosion vs. the Atlanta Hawks in the Game 3 of a 2011 second round playoff series.
Let's take a look at few of the jaw-dropping plays Rose made during that game.
Here's Rose getting a bucket in transition, the way we've seen him do so many times before. Just realize that there are only a handful of NBA players finishing in that scenario. Look at how many Atlanta defenders Rose beats after the pick from Noah frees him from Jeff Teague:
That would be four Hawks players within an arm's length of the ball, and a fifth in perfect position to slide over as a help defender. Rose bulls his way through all of them and finishes at the rim. This is his athleticism in all its glory.
Here Rose is again, forgoing the pick set by Gibson at the top of the key to instead use his unparalleled first step to blow by Teague and then three other Hawks defenders.
Great offense beats great defense in the NBA, and this surely is not great defense. But with Rose's speed and strength on display after that initial first step, can you really blame Atlanta for failing to corral him? Again, look at how many people Rose beats on this play:
That burst is the difference between Rose and so many other point guards, not to mention the emphatic slam that punctuates the play. A layup can get blocked, that type of two-handed dunk can not. Derrick Rose is all about efficiency.
One last example:
Again: this is straight athleticism. I mean, look at that finish. After a side pick, Rose finds his way back to the center of the court. He attacks the basket after the defender chooses to stick with Deng at the three-point line instead of help and Rose makes them pay. He beats great shot blockers like Al Horford and Josh Smith at the rim to finish with his left and give the Bulls two points.
Rose became the youngest MVP in league history and established himself as a top 10 player because of his explosiveness. He can't be expected to be dunking on people his first few weeks back, but Crawford's words and the play of Shumpert and Peterson are comforting. Rose is likely to return to the court sometime in February, but he won't really be back until he's killing the opposition with his natural athleticism.
And that'll happen ... eventually. Just maybe not right away.