The sight of Derrick Rose sitting on the bench isn't what Chicago Bulls fans should be focusing on right now.
It's the reality of the calendar.
After 10 months away from the game, Rose has built his way back to the point that he appears to be close to playing again. Teammates and coaches have been encouraged by what they've seen in practice because they know that Rose, even as he continues to rehab, can still do things that few other players in the world can do. The issue for the Bulls is that if Rose doesn't come back in the next few weeks, does it really make sense for him to come back at all this season?
Any player who has gone through ACL surgery can tell you that there are ups and downs to any part of the recovery process. Some days the player feels back to his old self and other days the rust can feel overwhelming. As Tom Thibodeau has pointed out repeatedly in this process, no matter how much a player prepares in practice, the game situations are completely different. The Bulls have tried to put together game situations in practices to get Rose more comfortable in his surroundings, but there is only so much they can do.
If he doesn't feel like he's mentally able to be the same player he used to be, or close to it, there's not much else they can do. Rose can continue warming up before games and showing glimpses of his MVP form and continue to open eyes in practices, but if he doesn't feel he can be the same player, all of those pregame highlights don't mean a thing.
That's why the time is coming soon for a meeting of the minds between Rose; his inner circle, including agents Arn Tellem, B.J. Armstrong and his brother, Reggie; and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and executives John Paxson and Gar Forman. At some point in the near future, the group is going to have to come to a conclusion: Is Derrick in or out for this season?
The Bulls have only 22 regular-season games left. Ideally, the organization would love to allow Rose several weeks of short playing time (likely between 15-20 minutes to start) to get under his belt as the team gets set to head into the playoffs.
If Rose returns by the March 18 home game against the Denver Nuggets, it would give him an entire month to get back into some kind of rhythm before the playoffs begin. That would also give him 16 regular-season games during which he could shake off some of the rust and incrementally increase his minutes. It's by no means a hard deadline at this point but it is something that everyone involved must think about.
If Rose still doesn't feel ready to start in a few weeks then the organization must seriously consider whether it is worth bringing him back at all. It's hard enough for any player to work his way back into the lineup, but having the best player on your team try to work his way back into shape in the heart of a playoff chase is a tough sell. Obviously, with a player of Rose's caliber, the coaches and players would gladly take the risk. But are Rose and his inner circle comfortable in this scenario? Is this the optimal situation for success after 10 months of rehab? Would the Bulls really want to put Rose, and for that matter Thibodeau, in a situation in which their franchise player is playing 40 minutes a night in the playoffs just a few weeks after beginning his comeback from major knee surgery? All of these questions continue to hover over the franchise and must be answered in the near future.
In the short term, it can't hurt that Rose was back on the bench Sunday night screaming for his teammates and providing words of encouragement. They loved having him out there and he loved being there, although Thibodeau made it a point after the game to note that Rose may not be out there for future games. As much as Thibodeau tried to downplay the significance of Rose being on the bench, all parties involved are aware of the significance, even Rose himself. In an informal chat with Chicago reporters, he acknowledged that every move he makes is going to be watched. He knows what people are thinking, but he isn't letting that get to him. He is just try to focus on getting back on the floor.
For the Bulls, the best thing about Rose being back on the bench is that it made him remember what it was like out there playing. His competitive juices were clearly flowing as he jumped up and down off of his chair throughout the game. Maybe his presence Sunday night won't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things, but maybe it will help remind him just how much fun he had on the floor and may ease any lingering doubts about his possible return. Either way, the clock on his availability this season is ticking and a decision regarding his status has to be made soon.