CHICAGO -- Now what?
There are so many answers to that small yet supremely meaningful two-word question that there's almost no place to start where any answer is the right one.
With recent concerns over the six weeks Jimmy Butler is likely to miss with a high-grade ulnar ligament elbow sprain and small bone impaction and the unknown return of Taj Gibson from an ankle sprain (he's day-to-day but in a walking boot), the Chicago Bulls are back to the familiar territory of having to play "next man up" basketball until at least the opening round of the NBA playoffs. But with direct, laser-aimed concerns about Derrick Rose and his possible (and quasi-promised) return to the court before the playoffs begin, the answer for all parties involved is simpler and far less unsure than we might think.
I'm basically saying it's all-out-or-nothing time. It's "we don't give a damn anymore because we have nothing left to lose" time for both the Bulls and, more importantly, Rose.
No longer should they or he buy into their talent, promise and potential without having details of the return policy. It's go-for-broke, full-on-attack, us-against-the world mode. 10X Rule-style basketball. A beast mode of which Marshawn Lynch knows nothing.
For Rose, simply use that final minute of the second quarter of Chicago's Feb. 11 game against the Sacramento Kings as a capsule: eight points, 60 seconds. It was as if Rose finally said "Kobe" and turned the game back into what it had always been to him: His muse.
Because a large part of the Derrick Rose's Rebirth question has been answered. Can he get through this season unscathed, uninjured, without setback? That answer, over the course of the 46 of Bulls' 60 games in which Rose been able to play, is "no." So now that we know what we know, that's all we need to know. He knows what he knows, and for the remainder of this season, that's all he needs to know. So this next phase of Rose's re-re-re-return -- if the Bulls are honestly desperate to win the Eastern Conference, play in the NBA Finals and win a championship this season -- has to be in direct correlation to what we've all learned, discovered and now see to be truth.
No more being conservative, waiting to see what might happen. Throw caution, concern and care to the Lake Shore Drive wind and worry about the results and collateral damage later. Once the Bulls' roster is whole again, the "next man up" mindset should seamlessly and immediately be replaced with a "started from the bottom now we're here" belief (or lie) that if it doesn't happen now for this team, it is never, ever, ever ... ever going to ever happen.
For someone who doesn't have to pay Rose for the two years remaining on his contract, this is both easy and reckless to say. But at this stage, in this recurring act of this Theatre of Cruelty, what do the Bulls have left to lose? The window for the Bulls winning a championship with this "close to perfect" on-paper squad is very small as things stand. As in, this is probably their strongest, if not only, chance. Cleveland is not going to get any worse (even with LeBron James probably being at the beginning stages of the back end of his prime), and this is as vulnerable as it's going to be as long as LeBron remains in a Cavaliers uniform.
(Note: Neither are the Hawks, nor the Raptors, going to get worse. And Paul George is coming back. Neither are the Warriors, nor the Trail Blazers, going to get worse. And Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are coming back.)
Add to that contract ends coming up (Butler) and age creeping in (Pau Gasol, Mike Dunleavy) and the continued rumored uncertainty about Tom Thibodeau's future here, and the Bulls need to treat the playoff run once Rose returns as a straight-up "can't kill something that's already dead" last stand.
And from a pure state of mental selfishness, Rose needs to do the same. In his mind, he should be in nothing less than a final-opportunity state of consciousness. Anything less wouldn't be fair. To us or him.
He has to ask himself: Is the game more significant than the injury? He also has to live with the answer.
At this point, seriously, what do either have to lose? The Bulls or Rose? If they fall short and don't win, so be it. At least all involved (and all watching, invested in and concerned) will know that a Broncos-signing-Peyton Manning risk was taken for something bigger than the wait-and-see existence that has been the Bulls organization's life the past three seasons.
And when the final buzzer sounds on this Bulls season, whatever is left on the court and whether or not Rose is still standing, it will be a source of unmatchable pride worth honoring for however long he is able to play basketball.
It will also do more to restore his image and fan following than anything he or the organization has done since the "Derrick Rose rule" was put into the collective bargaining agreement in 2011.
For Rose, it will be the step he needs to take to begin not only the process back to being who he once was as a player and person, but also to begin his possible exit from Chicago. The burden both on him and for him has become unrealistic, at times unfair and, at this point, too heavy.
Anything less than winning a championship this season, with Rose the Finals MVP, is just a furthering of one of those Chicago nails deeper into his proverbial coffin. His home city has become too unforgiving, Michael Jordan's shadow too big and Rose too careful for anything good to come out of what's left of him playing out his contract as a member of the Bulls.
Unless he decides to ball out in his return.
If anyone has been paying close attention, all of the missed shots and missed games are not the only thing missed from Rose. He's been so damn focused and concerned about having his basketball life back he has been unable to "just play." To smile, to laugh, to laugh at himself, to ball, to be Pooh.
Which is all the more reason Rose needs to go for it with reckless abandon and anger when he returns. For the first time in more than three years, just live and play in and for the moment. This singular moment. This moment that's left. Rose needs -- even if for a brief period of time, and at the expense of missing more time in the future -- to get "just playing" out of his system ... and back into his life.
Because unless Rose gets back to that point, and until the Bulls reach that point with him, anything he does will forever be considered less than zero.