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INDIANAPOLIS – Pushing past defenders and doubts and delivering the Chicago Bulls flashes of a genius gone too long, Derrick Rose demonstrated the truest antidote for the franchise's dysfunction. Ball in his hands, blur on the floor, Rose tethers enemies to the common cause of the championship chase.
With so much distrust and downright disdain between the Bulls' front office and coach, the ripples of Rose's resounding return on Saturday night ought to remind general manager Gar Forman and coach Tom Thibodeau of the stakes of surviving the organization's power struggle.
Between Forman and Thibodeau the disconnect is deep, but Rose's reconstructed knee could be a powerful agent of reconciliation. With transcendent talents, there come redemptive powers. No one wants to be ousted with Rose on the roster, because he is one of those once-in-a-lifetime players for executives and coaches.
"The speed, the quickness, the power … there's no one like him," Thibodeau marveled.
Still. Seventeen months later, Rose had finally recovered from the excruciating rehabilitation of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. For 20 minutes of a preseason victory over the Indiana Pacers, Rose was long on speed and strength, and understandably short on precision. Most of all, his body is back. Rose played at a fever pitch, delivering the ball end-to-end on layups, hurdling one Pacer to a loose ball at midcourt and punctuating the play with a dunk.
"I'm not slowing down," Rose said. "I don't care who is [at] the hole. If they're going to foul me, I'm going to get up and keep going hard at them."
As Rose returns to the Bulls after missing a full season, his most important teammate – Luol Deng – is privately disappointed over the franchise's unwillingness to engage him in serious contract discussions. Deng could leave as a free agent this summer, could be traded before the February deadline – everything is so unsettled over his future.
An assistant coach that Rose deeply valued, Ron Adams, was let go over Thibodeau's wishes this summer because Forman didn't like Adams' defiant disposition. Eventually, Rose could be trapped in the middle of the Forman-Thibodeau cold war.
As the months passed without Thibodeau signing his name to a four-year contract extension last season, the coach privately feared the consequences of fully committing himself to that inevitable signature, league sources said.
If Thibodeau had been convinced that his GM was usurping the coach's influence without a signed deal, he knew the finalizing of his contract would move him further to the mercy of the GM. The Bulls had a news conference for that four-year, $18 million contract on the eve of training camp in 2012, but it was months and months until Thibodeau signed his name.
"It is a toxic relationship that I believe will ultimately derail them," one NBA coaching source with close ties to Thibodeau and Forman warned.
As Thibodeau delivered one of the best coaching performances the NBA had witnessed in years, pushing past the loss of Rose and core rotation players to beat the Brooklyn Nets and take the Miami Heat to five games in the conference semifinals, management kept pushing to exert controls on him.
What had been a strained, fractured partnership descended into permanent disrepair with Forman's firing of Adams, the Bulls' top assistant coach and decades-long confidant of Thibodeau's. If Bulls management had to take Thibodeau's criticisms and pushback, they refused to take it from Adams.
As one league source told Yahoo Sports, "Ron didn't drink the Kool-Aid there, and this was a message from Gar to Thibs that he's running the show, especially on picking the players."
Now, Rose is back and insists he's better than ever. His vertical leap has improved through months and months of work with his trainer, Rob McClanaghan. His 3-point shot is surer. Rose believes he's better than ever.
Rose changes everything in the Eastern Conference, but most of all he needs his transcendent talent to impact the fabric of this franchise. As the Chicago Bulls threaten to come undone at the organization's highest levels, Rose remains the reminder for everyone to find a way to make this franchise functional and free of discord. Gulfs are deep, but so is the talent of Rose.
Derrick Rose is back, and make no mistake: His burden has never been bigger.