As well as Joakim Noah played en route to winning Defensive Player of the Year and making his second consecutive All-Star Game appearance, as much as an improvement Sixth Man of the Year runner-up Taj Gibson made, as pleasantly surprising D.J. Augustin’s emergence was after his midseason acquisition and even as anticipated the pursuit of Carmelo Anthony in free agency is becoming, looming in the background for the Bulls, once again, is the return of Derrick Rose.
The former league MVP was a limited participant in practices toward the end of the team’s campaign, which concluded in a stunning first-round playoff exit against Washington, after suffering a torn right medial meniscus in November, followed by subsequent season-ending surgery to repair the injury. Rose’s recovery continues at the Berto Center, with the goal of getting back to his old self by July, when he will participate in USA Basketball’s training camp prior to the national team inclusion in the FIBA World Cup.
“He’s really in a good place right now. He continues to train. You probably saw he’s starting to play now one-on-one, two-on-two,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman explained on the day after the Game 5 loss to Washington. “He’ll continue to ramp it up and if everything goes according to plan, which up to this point it has, we’re optimistic that he’ll play with Team USA this summer and have another good summer of work and be ready to go in October.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, also a USA Basketball assistant coach, chimed in: “He’s right on schedule. This is the next phase now. The rehab part went well. The non-contact stuff went well. So now this is the next step, which is good.”
Rose has increased the intensity of his daily workouts, according to people with knowledge of the sessions—albeit not against all NBA-level competition, as several of his teammates aren’t in town—and Thibodeau, for one, doesn’t see why the point guard won’t get back to his previous elite level after rehabilitation.
“He has had two unfortunate injuries. I think he has put a lot of work into his body. We’re optimistic that he’s going to make a complete and full recovery. Hopefully he’ll have an opportunity to play some this summer with USA Basketball and then we’ll go from there,” the coach said. “He’s going to be here more this summer, which is going to be good. We’ll have him work with our team here and then we’ll see where he is in July in terms of we’ll probably have more guys in in preparation for summer league and that will be a good setup for him to go into the USA practices, which begin right after the NBA summer league.”
Augustin, who saw Rose practice late in the season, added: “He kind of did a little offensive stuff with us. It wasn’t like a real practice, but he looked good. He looked like he’s coming back to normal and hopefully he’ll have a big summer."
In a departure from his usual summer workout destination in California, Rose will stay in town and be connected with the Bulls throughout the offseason—it doesn’t hurt that one of the people he worked with during the rehab process from his 2012 ACL injury, Jen Swanson, is now employed by the organization—and will at least have the opportunity to test out his game with his teammates and others who come to town, like mini-camp and summer-league participants. While he won’t play for the Bulls’ summer-league entry in Las Vegas, it’s not out of the question that he takes part in the team’s practices ahead of USA Basketball tryouts, which are held in the same city almost immediately afterwards.
Rose will face stiff competition in trying to make the national team, even with Thibodeau present and the local ties of head coach Mike Krzyzewski and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo, both fellow Chicago natives. Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook is considered a favorite and Golden State’s Stephen Curry’s shooting ability gives him a unique skill set that is coveted in international competition, while two other All-Star floor generals, Portland’s Damian Lillard and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, are also strong challengers at the position and it’s unlikely that more than four point guards are kept on the roster.
Although it would be uplifting to see Rose not only make the USA team, but excel—especially with an August exhibition game against Brazil at the United Center—the Bulls have to concern themselves with the bigger picture. Even if a high-profile, impactful addition like Anthony were to arrive over the summer, Rose’s dynamic athleticism and driving ability would still be the centerpiece of the club moving forward, if for no other reasons than what he’s proved in the past, his relative youth and the franchise’s financial commitment to him.
That said, after two season-ending injuries in the last three years, the organization understands that they have to brace themselves for the possibility of unexpected misfortune or even just lightening Rose’s burden. Whether that means the return of Augustin, bringing back veteran Kirk Hinrich, acquiring another backup in free agency—Mavericks point guard Devin Harris has been connected to the Bulls, according to a league source—or trying to surround Rose with talent that fits his game, the front office has options.
“Well, I think we need to continue to just build our roster. I think we want to have a full roster, a complete roster. That’s something under the new CBA we struggled with a little bit because of the salary structures, and I think it’s something we’ll be able to address now into the offseason. If we can get our team deeper and have more depth across the board I think it’s going to help us, and of course health is going to help us,” Forman said. “We had Derrick’s injury this year. I do want to say this: Derrick obviously that was a blow losing him 10 games in. But I do think our training staff and medical staff and the addition of Jen Swanson, outside of that, our health was pretty good. I think that was a real positive for us and the fact that we could win 48 games and get back to the playoffs.”
Thibodeau added: “You can’t lose sight of Derrick being back. That changes a lot of things, but you can never have enough shooting. That’s something we have to address.”
Augustin and Hinrich, both impending free agents, each expressed their desire to return to Chicago, hopefully playing alongside Rose.
“He can create and he can get people open shots, and I can create and get people open shots, so I think it will be good for us as a team and each other,” Augustin said. “It would help any team, but I think with us two on the floor it would definitely be a big thing. I’ll enjoy backing him up and doing whatever it takes to help the team win next year.
“They told me that they wanted me back, and I really want to be back so we’ll see how everything works out,” he continued. “I’m just going to leave that to my agent and the team. Just go into the summer, try and relax a few weeks and then get back to work.
“It’s a business, you know. They definitely gave me an opportunity, I owe them a lot, and like I said, it’s not always about the money. It’s where you feel comfortable or where you fit in. I definitely want to be here and hopefully everything works out.”
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Hinrich added: “I grew up a Bull in this league and I’ll always think of myself as a Chicago Bull, no matter what happens. So just moving forward, I have a great relationship with my teammates who are coming back and the organization, there’s definitely a history there.”
Regardless of how things eventually shake out as far as roster moves, it’s clear that Rose’s return will again be a major focus around the league and here in Chicago, as weary as fans are of the saga, the top priority. While the Bulls, for the second straight season, displayed both determination and development—especially Gibson and Noah, whose recent “minor” arthroscopic surgery on his right knee involved some cartilage being removed, according to multiple sources—that bode well for integrating Rose back into the lineup and perhaps having greater offensive flexibility, assuming he regains his game-changing ability, it automatically changes how the team is perceived.
Rose’s recovery is a lot more under the radar the second time around, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less significant.