It is no great secret that Chicago Bulls star point guard Derrick Rose has been medically cleared to play for quite a while as he rehabs the ACL tear he suffered in the first game of the 2012 playoffs. Despite several indications that Rose might return soon, from reporters and rappers alike, he's chosen not to due to the psychological barrier of coming back at full strength after a long layoff. That's a rare admission in a league where players push themselves beyond acceptable human limits to return from injury and often get bitterly criticized if they're seen to shy away from playing through pain. Yet, if Rose has benefited from a double standard, it's also broadly true that his choice should probably be the new standard.
The most peculiar thing about Rose's absence hasn't been his reasoning, but the fact that he has refused to make a decision on his status for the full season and playoffs. With less than a week remaining in the regular season, it would seem imprudent to attempt to integrate Rose back into the team in time for him to have an optimal impact in the playoffs.
Perhaps this lack of a timetable has not been as big of an issue for the Bulls as it might initially seem. According to a report from K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, the team is planning as if Rose will not come back until next fall's training camp:
Now that Rose sitting out all season is all but a certainty, the Bulls and Rose have drawn some criticism. Asked in light of that whether the Bulls should have just declared Rose out for the season last fall, coach Tom Thibodeau shrugged. [...]
"Obviously, you can look back and say that now, but we never felt that way. We knew it was the type of injury that takes time, so you just want to do what you feel is right. We feel like we've done that." [...]
Thibodeau reiterated there is no drop-dead date for Rose to return, leaving the possibility open he could play in the playoffs after missing the regular season. Nobody expects that scenario to transpire, however, which means Rose likely would return next training camp.
Thibodeau was asked if the story is more of an obsession with fans and media than within the organization.
"Look, this was not unexpected. A player like Derrick there's going to be a lot of attention on and rightfully so," Thibodeau said. "This guy has done an incredible job with his career, with this franchise, and we understand how important it is. … We knew (missing the season) would be a possibility all along."
Rose's rehabilitation has not been without controversy, both for specific reasons focused on comments from his brother on the Bulls' ability to become a championship team and more general reasons related to the aforementioned decision not to come back immediately. To outsiders (including me), it looked as if the Bulls approached this season with the plan to stay in the playoff hunt until Rose's return and then vault back to the level of the NBA's precious few title contenders. While Chicago has performed well above expectations without Rose, the fact remains that they're a middling playoff team that would consider moving on to the conference semifinals a serious success. They're not irrelevant, but they're not anything close to the team they'd be with Rose. If management had known that Rose would sit out the full season, perhaps they would have approached the year in a different way.
We must take the Bulls at their word, though, and assume that the way this season played out was always the contingency plan in the event that Rose did not come back. More than a decade ago, the San Antonio Spurs taught us that there's no shame in a good team maximizing their losses with a star out — it's the reason they were able to draft Tim Duncan. But there's also a great deal of value in maintaining a level of competence as the Bulls have in 2012-13. They have neither courted irrelevance for the sake of a weak chance at lottery gold (in a supposedly bad draft, too) nor gone against the strengths of their very intense coach and the arsenal of role players he seemingly produces in a home laboratory.
To put it another way, the Bulls have stayed true to their team concept even without their franchise player. That's a valuable achievement regardless of their final finish in the standings. With league-wide roster turnover at an all-time high, a firm identity can help an organization stand out from the crowd.