If you had to pick a time to transition your roster, to get the club's assets and salary structure in order, and most importantly wait patiently for your franchise player to return from a career-threatening injury, this would be that time. There's absolutely no sense wasting a drop of angst over Derrick Rose's return or the Bulls running out of gas because this season was never going to be their time.
Have you seen the Miami Heat recently? Have you seen some part of their 22-game winning streak, tied for the second longest such streak in the history of professional basketball in America? Have you seen the way LeBron James has dominated the season and the way Dwyane Wade has rebounded physically to play nearly as well as he did at the height of his career, in 2005-06? Have you seen the way Miami has taken out the Bulls in Chicago, the Knicks in New York and the Pacers in Indiana since the All-Star break?
Only three other teams have won as many as 20 consecutive games in the NBA. The Lakers of Wilt and Jerry West won 33 straight and a championship in 1972. The Bucks of Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson won 20 straight and a championship in 1971. The Houston Rockets of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming won 22 straight in 2008 but did NOT win the championship, perhaps because Yao suffered a season-ending injury midway through the streak and missed the playoffs.
The larger point here is that Miami is engaged in a historically great run. If the Heat beat the Celtics in Boston on Monday for No. 23 there is every reason to start entertaining the thought they could actually catch the Wilt/West Lakers, which has been unthinkable no matter the sport, no matter how great the team. Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, if you combine their best-ever win streaks, have a total of 34, just one game more than the '72 Lakers.
So the notion that the Bulls, playing without Rose most of the season, were going to get him back in February or March and magically challenge Miami was naïve and unrealistic to the point of being preposterous. It's something you would, well, stupidly believe in a bygone era, say the 1950s, when a great team could only be enjoyed by word of mouth or by reading the box score in the next day's newspaper. The Bulls, healthy and whole, couldn't beat Miami two seasons ago and the Heat are a demonstrably better and smarter team than they were two seasons ago.
The Celtics are the only team in the Eastern Conference that has even a prayer of challenging Miami this season. And if healthy, the Heat will roll right through the Celtics, too, in a seven-game series. There's no revelation here. And romanticism has no place in professional basketball. As well as the Bulls played at times in January and February, this was always going to be a transition season for the Bulls. The day Rose crashed to the United Center court at the end of Game 1 against Philly last April the Bulls were two seasons away from even thinking about serious contention, which is why Gar Forman and John Paxson wisely began to re-work the roster.
That's why it's just fine if Rose doesn't come back this season, with all due respect to the clowns who reason, "Rose is making $20 million; why doesn't he come back to work?" Rose is working. Every day to get back to the player he was in 2011 as the league's MVP. Rose's greatest attribute on the court may very well be his mental toughness, and if he isn't psychologically ready to resume playing he's best off not returning until he is.
Tell me again how it worked out for RG3 during the playoffs when he wasn't honest with himself or his coach about whether he should keep going. Magic Johnson tells the story about allowing himself to be pressured into playing following a knee injury in the early 1980s only to come back before he was psychologically ready to play. Rose, Magic believes, can only be helped by a summer of playing full-tilt, followed by a training camp.
The miraculously recovered Adrian Peterson was the first person I heard point out that he, after shredding his knee, had the benefit of a full training camp before going back on the field.
We're talking about a 10-year decision Rose is making, which ought to suggest to the know-it-alls it's infinitely wiser to err on the side of caution, whether that means returning for the final three weeks of this season or not until training camp. The know-it-alls obviously have forgotten about Gilbert Arenas, who before his gun issues was one of the 10 best players in the game from 2004 to 2006. He thought he was appeasing a whole lot of people when he tried to sprint back from major knee surgery in 2007. All his expedited return got him was one physical setback after another and at 30 years old Arenas was playing in China, a shell of his old self.
The reward for Rose returning, say, this week is minimal. To what end? Would his return enable the Bulls to beat Miami in the second round? Third round? No, neither. But the risk is incalculable. This isn't the return of Ricky Rubio. The Timberwolves point guard doesn't explode, doesn't play above the rim, isn't reliant on his legs. Rose does and is. If he's reticent to try and go up off his left leg to finish around the rim, he shouldn't be in the game yet. I find it difficult to believe that people, especially my friends in the Chicago media, are so desperate to see Rose back on the court they fail to acknowledge that nothing about returning from such a knee injury is to be presumed.
Yes, it would almost certainly give the Bulls a boost to get Rose back on the court. The win the other night at Golden State was a nice bit of recovery, but it's impossible to ignore what a 40-point loss to Sacramento says about this team. It's gassed. The tank is on E. Like every other team in the Eastern Conference, the Bulls just aren't good enough, particularly when missing players other than Rose, like Taj Gibson and Kirk Hinrich. They can't score and eventually the lack of reliable offense sabotages the defense and they can no longer beat the good teams.
It's not a catastrophe. Management was wise not to add salary before the trade deadline, and the club held onto the future pick from Charlotte that could be the top pick in the draft, and 2011 draft pick Nikola Mirotic has had some pretty impressive stretches for Real Madrid.
The upcoming playoffs aren't going to have the adventure of Rose's 2011 MVP season that ended with a trip to the conference finals, or the promise of the 2012 playoffs that died after that one victorious game against Philly. The Bulls will finish somewhere between fourth and seventh and could very well win a playoff series, which would be one helluva accomplishment under the circumstances.
But the sizzle will take place in Miami, which angers Bulls fans understandably, but shouldn't to the point that people misguidedly direct disappointment at Rose because he doesn't come back before it's time. Doctors can clear an athlete physically but athletes who lead teams to championships are, just as importantly, sound mentally.
Only one opinion counts in that regard: Rose's. And everything the kid has done in the eight years we've paid attention to his every move says he's earned the benefit of the doubt.