For Derrick Rose, it's all mental. His MVP season of a year ago already in his rear-view window -- sans for motivational purposes -- the point guard continues to grow as a player, but it's less about adding any skills to his impressive abilities than adopting a veteran's approach to the game.
"If anything, winning the MVP made me work even harder, just knowing that I want to be better as a player. You want to get back to that level, where you want to compete against the best, you want everybody showing up to your games -- the crowd and everything -- and the goal is to win a championship, and if it takes me being in the gym for numerous hours, I'm willing to do it," Rose said. "I think that's what pushed me this summer, really working on my conditioning, running anywhere possible. I remember running in China, everywhere I went outside of the country, just running on a treadmill. This is the most I ever ran and I think by the time the season comes, I should be in shape."
Honestly, all the focus on Rose's perceived struggles against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals is probably a bit overblown. At 22 years old in his third season, playing that deep into the postseason for the first time in his career, he was bound to have some hiccups along the way. But you won't hear that excuse coming from the player himself.
"The reason that we lost last year, I put it all on me. Me not making the right decisions at certain times, me not knowing the clock and decision-making, turnovers and all that stuff, it really got to me and it hurt the team," he stated, maintaining the stance he's taken since the Bulls were ousted from the playoffs. "When I look at film, there were a lot of plays where I could have made the extra pass and I know that my basketball I.Q. got higher and I think that if it happens again -- where they over-help like that -- we'll have something for it."
By "we'll have something for it," it's clear he means the team, but feel free to read that as "Rose and Tom Thibodeau," given their extensive one-on-one post-practice film sessions and late-night exchanges of strategy-oriented text messages. However, Rose himself has started approaching the game from a more scientific standpoint, dissecting defenses based on his prior knowledge, as opposed to simply relying on his physical gifts.
The point guard -- often bigger and stronger than his defenders, if not just much quicker -- has talked about improving his post-up game, but aside from his more cerebral approach, expect the defensive-minded Bulls coach to push him to become an improved defender, wreaking havoc as a rover (as Thibodeau employed Celtics All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo while in Boston) in the team's help scheme.
"Just over-helping everywhere. Thibs has been doing a great job in practice, just making sure that I'm always in the play. Even if I'm over-helping, me doing that isn't going to hurt the team. I remember last year, I didn't really understand where he was coming from, but just looking at film, talking to him, just me being in the shape that I am, I should be able to do that," Rose explained. "My game, period: I just want to be efficient. I think I sharpened everything up, making the right decisions, my basketball I.Q. got higher, I think, and I really worked my tail off this summer."
Blessed with a coach who has equal fervor for improvement and just as little tolerance for losing, Rose's incredible work ethic and self-critical nature are a perfect match for Thibodeau's relentless pursuit of perfection. Unlike many stars of his magnitude, who have either been coddled throughout their careers or have adapted to their every whim being catered to, Rose still carries himself like just another player. However, he acknowledges that he's more than that, making it even more admirable that he submits to being one of Thibodeau's primary targets of verbal abuse on the team.
"It's tough. If you know Thibs, he's a tough coach. Every practice is going to be tough and he just pushes you, and as a player, you want that. You want a coach pushing you, yelling at you, telling you to do everything on the floor the right way, holding you accountable on the floor. It makes you a better player and I can say I'm happy being in this position I'm in. I appreciate him being the coach that he is, the coaching staff being the way that they are and I don't take them for granted," he revealed. "Thibs pushes you to that point, but being me, you'll never know when I'm mad or I'm happy so, he probably doesn't know when to stop. As a player, it's going to happen. Throughout your whole basketball career, you're going to have a coach that's always yelling at you, talking to you, but it's not to be an a-hole. It's to push you as a player and to help the team, and to help your teammates, and for Thibs to yell at me -- me being one of the leaders on the team -- he's able to yell at some of the people on the team that's like regular players. People seeing that, I think that helps our team."
As humble, fan-friendly and a reporter's dream to cover Rose is, the side most people overlook about him is his fierce competitive nature. Extremely team-oriented, he also has a strong independent streak within the context of the group, being fiercely loyal to his teammates, to the point where he freely admits to not being very open to recruiting free agents because of his belief in the team as currently constructed.
"It's just me, man. Just being younger, I remember just doing stuff because I wanted to do it. Just like the same thing here, where if it's not coming from the front office or anything, you're not going to hear me say anything about recruiting anyone. I think the city speaks for itself. It's a great marketing place, like I said. If you want to come here, do whatever you want to here, you can. Opportunities are here. The front office is great, our fans are the best in the world and I think Chicago just speaks for itself, especially in basketball," he said. "I think that I'm good. The team is good. My teammates, good. I wouldn't trade my teammates for anything in the world.
"Our front office has been doing a great job coming in, bringing guys in, picking the right guys with the right attitude, that just want to improve their game and want to win, and I think that's really what's driving this team. When you come in the gym, you see our rookie, Jimmy, just up in here shooting. That makes you want to come in here and work as hard as him, and he's a rookie. When you see that, it brings up your spirit, especially as a player, knowing that we have a goal and that's to win a championship, and you've got to put everything that you have into it.
"Our goal is to win a championship and I think we have a decent shot with the guys that we have coming back and we don't know what else is going on, but I know that the front office is doing a great job with getting whoever or whatever. I have a lot of belief in my teammates and I know that they have a lot of belief in me, and confidence in me as a player. That's all we need."
Despite his facade of being oblivious to everything not Bulls-related, Rose admittedly seeks outside criticism for motivational purposes. Contrary to their heads-buried-in-the-sand collective front last season, Rose and his crew are now behaving as if they've been slighted by any and everybody.
"We hear everything. We're just like you all; we hear and see everything, and I know that's just going to push us. We had the No. 1 record in the NBA last year. I guess people forgot that, but if anything, I know that it's going to make us go out there and play even harder. Thibs and the coaching staff are doing a great job making sure guys are coming in early and just training," he said. "We've got like 30 bikes that he ordered, just making sure everyone's in shape. Even when we're watching film, we're on the bike. So, this year is going to be totally different, but I think that everybody should be confident.
"I think that with the guys that we have coming back--we didn't trade really any big pieces yet, or if we trade or whatever, I don't know--we still have the same guys that's back and I think the chemistry that we have as a team, knowing what we went through, with that being our first year, I think that it definitely helped us because of the experience."
When Rose professes that all he's focused on is winning a title and that he's confident in his current group of teammates, take him at his word. His own personal experiences -- going back to his back-to-back Illinois state titles in high school, a NCAA runner-up showing in his lone college season, winning the Rookie of the Year and taking the defending-champion Celtics to the limit in an epic seven-game series, another .500 season and first-round exit in a campaign in which he earned his first All-Star berth, followed by the MVP year -- detail a consistent uptick in his year-to-year progress.
One constant during that time, whether at Simeon, Memphis or the various incarnations of Bulls squads has been his selflessness and desire for a family-like environment within the team. Last season's chemistry approached the level of cohesion usually only found on the high school and college levels, so with that level of comfort, ever-burgeoning leadership skills, motivation from the sting of losing and a mental maturation as a thinker of the game, Rose undergoing a (pardon to the Chicago faithful who believe uttering the following phrase is blasphemy) Jordanesque evolution -- from being able to dominate a game physically to being able to simply will his team to victory because he's out-thinking the opposition -- wouldn't be a shock.
The Bulls are now Rose's team. And with their best player and leader not feeling anywhere close to satisfied, there's a strong case to be made that expectations should be higher, regardless of what additions the front office does or doesn't make.