It was only two years ago when Derrick Rose was poised to rule the world, or at least provide a meaningful foil for King James. Remember 2011? Rose was the anti-LeBron, a team-first leader who refused to play the dutiful supplicant during James' free agent tour. Rose was the people's choice, and the media's as well, as he rode a breakthrough season all the way to the Most Valuable Player award and the best record in the league.
With Rose entering his peak, a stacked roster full of unselfish defensive stalwarts and the brilliant Tom Thibodeau on the sidelines, the Bulls seemed poised to break through as one of the league's truly elite teams and be a royal pain in the neck for LeBron and the Heat.
All that got lost in the wake of the hysteria that overtook Rose's ACL rehab last season. To be fair, the whole thing was handled about as gracefully as Thibodeau works his rotations. Information was hard to obtain, and since we all abhor a news vacuum in this day and age, optimism begat speculation, which soon gave way to reasonable doubt and finally hot takes of the global thermonuclear variety.
There's little sense in choosing sides in this battle anymore, but for the record, professional athletes are injured until they're not anymore. Their body is their most important investment and it's up to them -- not the team, aka their employer -- to take care of it. The notion of an athlete as a malingerer is as dated as Bill Walton's shattered foot, to cite one example. And it's not like the Bulls are completely innocent here. From the flippant way Luol Deng was described as "day to day" after undergoing an emergency spinal tap to Kirk Hinrich's ruptured calf, the Bulls haven't engendered much good feeling from their players.
All that said, it's vitally important that everyone gets past the past, and the only way for that happen is for Rose to be Rose again. Not only for the former MVP's sanity, but for the Bulls themselves.
The window for this particular group is closing fast. Deng is in the final year of his contract and he and Joakim Noah are coming off their own injury issues. This is probably their final chance to make a run, and with the Pacers closing fast, the Bulls are no longer the presumptive top challenger for Miami in the East.
That's perhaps a shade too pessimistic, so let's try a dash of optimism. With the smart free agent addition of Mike Dunleavy and the emergence of Jimmy Butler, this has a chance to be the best Bulls team of the Rose era. They're big, versatile and extremely well-coached. If Rose can provide the missing offensive punch they lacked last season, there's no reason to think that the Bulls can't return to the top of the standings and engage the Heat in a no-holds-barred conference finals epic.
There are very few shades of gray here. Without Rose, the Bulls admirably doubled down on their defensive effort and ground out 45 wins and a first-round playoff victory. That's a credit to the entire roster, as well as Thibodeau, who may be the league's best in-game tactician. But without Rose, they're the 90s Knicks, minus a bit of the on-court thuggery.
There's much riding on Rose this season, and while no one has any idea how his transition back to the court will play out, this should be cause for celebration, not trepidation. One of the game's brightest young stars is returning to action on one of the potentially excellent teams in the league.
Welcome back, D-Rose. Let's hope everything is as you left it.