Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thibs Will Rightly Go, But The Big Problem Is Rose

My wise grandfather used to say: when someone shows you who they are... believe them.

How may different ways does Derrick Rose need to show the world that he's just not that into this anymore?

The Bulls, and the basketball world, were blindsided two years ago when Rose was unwilling to return after he was cleared to play in the wake of his torn ACL. It never ocurred to the Bulls that their indefatigable warrior would not take to the court the moment he was ready.

His brother and his protective circle became an integral part of the story. Indeed, Rose has had a protective circle around him for his entire life and has never had to be his own man, and make his own decisions.

A dozen games into last season, he tore his meniscus, and everyone agreed from the jump that he would sit the season out. But this year, a theme began to develop. Rose delivered a string of unfortunate statements, talking openly about how he didn't want to be in pain later in life (as if this is a basketball, as opposed to a football, problem). It was clear that self-preservation was on his mind.

Maybe this was planted there by his militantly over-protective brother, Reggie, whose own basketball aspirations were snuffed out by injuries. Maybe two long, arduous rehabilitation processes had sapped his passion for the game. Maybe the guaranteed money had removed his sense of urgency. (Remember him crying after signing his big contract? "Mom, we made it!" Maybe this, getting his family out of Englewood, was his Championship all along.)

Maybe it was all of the above.

But the Derrick Rose we saw this year was undeniably a changed man and a changed player. He showed flashes of excellence, but disappeared for longer stretches. He was indifferent on defense and passive on offense. The ruthless penetration of the paint was rarely there. He played scared, afraid to leave his feet in traffc - at times even looking down while airborne. In tense moments, he too often was a wallflower. While opposing teams went on runs, Derrick too often deferred, and shrank from the fight.

With 24 minutes left in the season and the Bulls trailing, Rose scored 2 points on 4 second half shots against a Cavs team with Kyrie Irving sitting on the bench. He watched undrafted Matthew Dellavedova eat his lunch.

And this on the heels of a Starksian 2-for-17 finish in the pivotal Game 5.

Incomprehensible. Would the pre-injury Rose have gone so meekly? Not in a million years. He may not have prevailed, but he would have raged against the dying of the light.

Every time Rose had a good game this year, we all hoped against hope that it portended a return to greatess. Yet each and every time, he fell back again. He would take a half off. He would settle forperimeter  jump shots - if he shot at all. He would ignore defensive challenges.

It wasn't that he tried and failed, battled and lost. It was that much of the time he seemed to have no fight in him at all.

His play, his body language, his actions in returning from injuries... everything he does says, "Let me just get to the end of this thing with my knees intact and my money in the bank."

Only we don't even need to infer it. He has said as much, so his game and his choices need no further interpretation.

Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah gave everything they had of their aging, wounded legs. Jimmy Butler showed up to do battle with an all-time great. But when it all began to slip away, the Bulls knew they could no longer look to #1 to lead them. They knew that Rose just wasn't there. And that self-doubt was all that LeBron and his mates needed to blow the whole thing wide open in the end.

Will a new coach bring a new energy that helps Rose rediscover the love of playing basketball that for now has clearly - clearly - left him?

It has to happen. Or the Bulls need to find Rose a new home.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Rose Conundrum

Two moments.

The freak of nature that is LeBron James barrelled through the lane towards the basket. Between LeBron and the rim stood Nikola Mirotic. Outweighed by at least 40 pounds (depending on which estimate of LeBron's measurables you accept), Mirotic gamely - and futilely - attempted to stop King James from finishing. "And one".

A few feet away, Derrick Rose stood, Boozerianly, and watched. He would not get in LeBron's way. He did not even bother to swipe at the ball and give Mirotic a fighting chance at the rim.

Yet as the closing seconds of regulation ticked down, Rose took the inbounds pass, turned on the jets that he still has, achieved enough separation, and let it fly. The bank was open on a rainy Friday night in Chicago. Pandemonium.

Rose's return from two injury-plagued seasons has been messy. It has confounded simple narratives about what he is and isn't... about who he is and isn't.

Is Rose still in the middle stages of a process of beoming a star again, perhaps in a slightly diminished form?

Or have two years of monotonous rehab, combined with the permanent security of guaranteed millions, created a man who has lost his love for the game and at a fundamental level is now wired to view everything he does through a lens of self-preservation?

His defenders dismiss his unfortunate statements about not being in pain in business meetings later in life as the misunderstood ramblings of a young man who, lets face it, needed someone else to take his SAT's for him in order to serve the absurd mandate of one semester of pretend-college.

(These same defenders, interestingly, bristle at the suggestion that he lacks the aptitude to play a pure playmaking point guard position that perhaps the Bulls' new wealth of offensive of options suggests that he ought to.)

His chief defenders are his teammates. If they have doubted his will, his value, they have done an immaculate job of hiding it.

Yet as we saw Rose seemingly wake up from a stupor at halftime on Friday, it's hard not to think that perhaps Joakim Noah got in his face in the locker room and said, "Hey, Maverick, we've got bogeys all over us here. Maybe you want to engage?"

Noah, himself, has nothing right now. The spiritual leader of the team is playing on one leg and finally took a seat for most of the second half on Friday. Noah is going to win or die trying - and let's be honest, at some point in this postseason, it's likely to be the latter. But he's a wolverine, and I can't imagine watching Rose shy away from the fight as often as he does would not make Noah a little crazy now and again. Or crazier, anyway.

Rose is not, today, the same player he was when he won the MVP in Tom Thibodeau's first year in Chicago. I don't know if he will be that good again. Neither do you.

There are moments when you watch him and think: that's him! That's Derrick Rose! The blow-by quickness. The powerful step-back into an impossible jumper that falls. The quick elevation to block a shot on a larger opponent.

But there are also long stretches where he plays a brand of basketball that is, for lack of a better word, offensive.

Even at his best, he was never a great defender, but any great athlete, if he wants to, can avoid being a liability. Thibodeau had coaxed adequancy out of him on defense, pre-injury, and that was enough. For most of this season, however, Rose's brand of defense has consisted of escorting his man wherever he wants to go on the floor, as we saw him do with MIchael Carter-Williams in Round 1 against the Bucks.

Last night, Kyrie Irving swished a deep topside three - an ill-advised shot, to be sure - but on which Rose's hands never went above his waist. He could not even be troubled to put a hand in Irving's face. Rose had already positioned himself in an odd "open" stance, inviting Irving to drive to the middle of the floor where, presumably. someone else might stop his advance. Rose seemed surprised Irving didn't bother.

For whole quarters, you will see Rose seemingly drift, never once breaking into a sprint (an anecdotal account that is backed up by the Sport-Vu cameras in NBA arenas now, which do in fact show that Rose just doesn't ball so hard.)

To avoid contact under the basket, Rose leaves his feet to pass - an absurd habit that high school coaches try to beat out of their players.

And over the course of the season, Rose defiantly took an obscene number of three-pointers, an incarnation of Rose that the obnoxious but often on-point Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Joe Cowley, refers to a "FIBA Derrick" - in reference to his passive style for Team USA.  This season, Rose hit only a hair over 1 in 4 triples. He had become the guy you hate playing with at the gym, the one who thinks that beause he makes a shot once in a while, it's one he should keep taking because sooner or later his 30% will become 40%.

And where Rose used to launch himself at the rim, leaving opponents with only two choices - allow the basket or foul him - Rose now avoids leaving his feet in traffic, instead optiing to try to snake his way around larger defenders. When he does venture into the lane, he usually misses or his shot is blocked - a sight you almost never saw before. Getting into the lane and fanning the ball out to shooters, a simple form of playmaking that comes as second nature to LeBron, is an afterthought to Rose.

Never a pure playmaker in the sense of Nash, Paul or Parker, Rose nonetheless performed his facilitation duties competently before his injury. His explosiveness opened up passing lanes for him to exploit, which kept his assists over 7 per game and limited his need to take low-percentage shots.

Too often now, his decision-making defies logic. In the first two games of the Cavs series, Rose was picked up on a switch by a big man on four occasions, leaving a guard on Pau Gasol. In none of the four instances did Rose get the ball in to Gasol, who would have either scored easily or rotated the ball to an open teammate for an easy shot. Instead, Rose each time opted for difficult jumpers, making one and missing the other three.

Yet in the same situation Friday night, Jimmy Butler twice worked the ball in to Taj Gibson, resulting in a basket once and a foul the other time. It's an un-sexy play, one that won't show up on the stat sheet. But it's Basketball 101, an elementary tactical approach that too often eludes Rose as he tries to find himself again. He at times seems more interested in proving to himself and to the world that he's back, as opposed to winning a basketball game.

In the end last night, all was right. A heart-stopping finish. A crucial win. An appealing, if inefficient, 30-7-7 line, and a firm whooping of Uncle Drew. Kyrie lays down the road the Bulls must travel, and last night Derrick got the best of him.The Bulls now stand a Sunday home win away from solid control of the series and a very real path to the NBA Finals. And while Jimmy Butler is clearly the Bulls' best player right now, Rose still mans the helm.

Yet amidst the failing health of Noah and Gasol, and peak toxicity between Thibodeau and management... the halting, frustrating, at-times scintillating but perpetually vexing (r)evolution of Derrick Rose is just another layer of complexity heaped atop what could be the messiest conference champion in memory.