The games are an afterthought. The only question anyone inside and outside the organization wants to know at this point is if and when Rose will return to the floor this season. As hard as Tom Thibodeau has tried to deflect the spotlight off Rose, even the veteran coach essentially admitted Wednesday afternoon that his team is having a hard time blocking out Rose's "will he or won't he" status.
"Hey, we knew going in, we knew what the circumstances were going to be this year," Thibodeau said. "We had no idea, there was no timetable, there was no doubt where we were saying, 'OK, he's going to be back this date.' It's when he's ready, and we knew that going in. We can't allow [his possible return] to be an excuse for us not getting the job done. We got to get the job done. We've shown that we're capable and obviously capable of playing better than we have been recently."
The reality is that all the hoopla surrounding Rose's possible return, combined with the recent comments of his brother, Reggie, the fact that the Bulls are exhausted and battling injuries and the fact that Thibodeau is as domineering as ever, have contributed to the Bulls' recent slide. Yes, the Bulls have faced some elite level teams in that stretch and that shouldn't be understated, but their issues, as a group, are deeper than the fact they've played some good teams. It started when Rose gave his first interview in four and half months to USA Today and said he was "far away" from returning and was compounded a couple days later in Boston on Feb. 13 when Rose told Chicago reporters that he "wouldn't mind" missing the season if his leg still wasn't feeling right.
Up until that point, pretty much everyone within the organization -- from players to front-office execs -- thought that Rose would be back playing at some point this season. While they knew there was a chance Rose would sit out the entire season, not many actually believed that. They saw the way he was looking in practice and they could tell he was starting to look like his old self. For the first time, the entire group started to realize that there was a chance the superstar guard wouldn't be back this year.
Still, they pressed on. Rose continued working out during the All-Star break and traveled with the Bulls to New Orleans, as he has been doing since the first of the year, where they demolished the Hornets. It was after this game that things really started to change for the Bulls because it was when Rose's brother, Reggie, openly questioned Bulls' management in an interview with ESPNChicago.com and publicly stated that management's inability to surround Rose with more talented players would be a factor in his decision on whether to play this season. Reggie wanted to make it known that he didn't think the Bulls were good enough to beat Miami and win a title this season and as an older brother he wanted to take some of the pressure off his younger brother in the process.
The problem is that it actually may have done the opposite. Reggie's comments only fueled the fire. In the process, the comments also had Derrick's teammates questioning what was going on. To think that Reggie's comments were not a topic of conversation among other players and their personal inner circles would be ridiculous. Of course they saw the comments and discussed them. Did that change the way they defended a certain play in a game or how hard they played? No. But it has had an impact on the overall mental state of the group. The hope that Derrick would return wasn't suddenly gone, but it had been tempered. Instead of thinking that when Rose came back they had a shot to contend for a title, now they were wondering would Rose come back at all? And while Reggie made it clear that he was speaking for himself, not for Derrick, some players had to be wondering if Derrick believed some of the things that his brother said.
The comments left many in the organization shaking their heads in frustration. They were upset Reggie had gone public with his feelings, but the reality is that there was a lot of truth in what he said. The Bulls weren't built to win a title this season. They were built with a lot of short, cheap contracts -- with an eye to the future. While many in the organization were upset with the notion that Derrick may not play this season even if he was physically ready to go, the reality is that this may not be the optimal situation for Derrick to have success. That part of Reggie's message got lost in the shuffle. He knew that the pressure on his little brother to be the Derrick Rose of old, especially coming back in the heart of a playoff chase, would be overwhelming considering the Bulls still don't have another player who can consistently get his own shot and create for his teammates.
The reality for general manager Gar Forman and executive vice president John Paxson is that there weren't a lot of moves that the Bulls were going to be able to make because of their cap situation. After losing out on LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in the summer of 2010, the bulk of the Bulls' cap was going to be taken up by Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Rose. For better or worse, this was their team, and the rift between Bulls' management and Rose's inner circle continues to grow deeper because of it.
Despite all of the behind-the-scenes ins and outs, the Bulls continued to play at a high level. For months, the rest of the Bulls' players had grinded their way to a start few had projected while Rose worked tirelessly to get back on the floor. The success even surprised many in the front office who feared the team would take a serious step back this season. The idea that the Bulls could actually contend for the Eastern Conference crown this season wasn't nearly as far-fetched as it had been in October. But in the span of just over a week, the hope and excitement for the rest of the season had fallen flat because of the reality of the comments that had been made.
While Derrick and Reggie's comments have had an impact on the Bulls recently, the other crucial factors in all of the recent losses are just as important. First, the Bulls are dealing with the types of injuries that every team experiences throughout the year -- it's just that these have come to key players at the wrong time. Taj Gibson's knee injury deflates an already beleaguered bench. Kirk Hinrich's inability to stay in the lineup has crippled the Bulls' offense at times. After playing 40 minutes almost every single night this season, Noah and Deng look more mentally and physically exhausted than at any other point in recent memory.
The Bulls are a tired group and they still have Thibodeau pushing as hard as ever to get them back on track. No, the players haven't tuned out their coach. They still respect him and play hard for him because they know he can win and lead them to where they want to go. But because of the lack of depth, and all the injuries, players like Noah, Deng and the rest of their teammates haven't been able to find that extra gear when Thibodeau asks. That has been one of the biggest changes this season compared to the last two. Usually Thibodeau, combined with the leadership of Noah and Deng, has been able to will his team into winning various games. They couldn't always make the play when they needed one. But that's not the case anymore. The Bulls are in need of a boost in the worst way and it's hitting home that the boost, in the form of Derrick Rose, may not be coming this season. Until he does, his presence, or lack thereof on the floor, will continue to hover over every detail in the organization.