PHILADELPHIA -- The Chicago Bulls are stuck in a multi-million-dollar catch-22.
When Derrick Rose plays, the entire basketball world holds its breath, hoping he doesn't re-injure himself after two knee surgeries, and now, two ankle sprains. When he doesn't, as was the case on Friday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, some question his toughness and wonder if he will ever be the same player.
The Bulls can't win.
When asked on Friday whether Rose would be ruled out for Saturday's game against the Boston Celtics as well, coach Tom Thibodeau didn't wait until the question was finished to respond.
"No, no," Thibodeau said. "We'll see (Saturday). We'll see where he is. If he can go, I think he has to go. If he can't, then he doesn't. It's really that simple. It's the only way he's going to shake the rust off is getting out there and playing."
The Bulls' front office feels the same way. While GM Gar Forman and executive VP John Paxson are hopeful that Thibodeau will keep Rose and Joakim Noah on a minutes limit to start the season, their outlook jives with the head coach's: If Rose feels good enough to play, then that's what he should do.
But after watching Rose tweak his ankle injuries during Wednesday night's win over the Milwaukee Bucks and then limp around the locker room after it was over -- not to mention that Friday marked the third game Rose has missed six games into the 2014-15 season -- one question comes to mind:
What's the rush?
The NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint. Thibodeau, Forman and Paxson should all tape that saying up to their mirrors and say it to themselves when they wake up in the morning. Because contrary to Thibodeau's oft-stated belief, every game does not count the same in the NBA. Whether the Bulls win or lose on Saturday night against the Celtics, is that really going to make a difference if they are lucky enough to play into May or June?
The last thing the Bulls need is for Rose to play and tweak something else. That's exactly what happened three seasons ago. Rose was never quite the same after a turf toe injury in early January, and he continued dealing with a slew of different injuries before tearing the ACL in his left knee.
The Bulls are already being cautious with Rose's health, but they need to be even more cautious. Rose indeed needs to shake off rust, but he doesn't need to do so until his ankles are completely healthy.
And that didn't seem to be the case Wednesday in Milwaukee. He wasn't moving well laterally and did not look comfortable on the floor. He confirmed as much after the game.
"Of course I wasn't 100 percent tonight," Rose said. "But I felt like we needed this win. And just try to come out here and do anything it takes to get this win with my teammates."
This is where Rose can help himself. Some may think he is being too cautious, that he doesn't have the same all-in mindset he once had. But Rose and Thibodeau don't seem to care much what other people think. And that's important when deciding when and where to pick spots for the former MVP.
"I try not to get wrapped up in that," Thibodeau said of the mounting criticism surrounding Rose. "When he's playing all the time and playing great everyone talks about (how) he's a tough guy, he's a warrior, he's this, he's that. He's the same guy. The guy has had two serious injuries -- he's coming back, he's working, there's going to be some bumps. So he's got a sprained ankle, he's got to deal with it and then when he's ready to go, he goes.
"And that would be the case for any of our players. Any guy that's coming back off an injury or a surgery you got to make sure ... what you don't want is a guy out there laboring and then something else happens. So just be patient, let him work his way through it, it will be good in the end. He's doing fine."
But Thibodeau and Rose can't have it both ways. Rose can't say one night he wanted to play to help his teammates, as he did in Milwaukee, and then the next night say he just wants to be patient and knows there are a lot more games to play, as he did before Friday's game in Philadelphia. Thibodeau can't say one night that he wants Rose to be patient and the next night that he wants him to play and continue shaking rust off.
Thibodeau and the front office know this team has more than enough talent to win games without Rose. They don't need him on the floor if he is not 100 percent healthy at any point before the All-Star break. They need him on the floor in the playoffs.
Whether Rose ends up playing 70 games this season or 40, the Bulls must remember the bigger prize at stake. Games against bad teams are not worth risking the health of the most important player on the team.