LOS ANGELES — So now what?
In the wake of Derrick Rose's right medial meniscus tear, which will require surgery, the Bulls have some decisions to make. Depending on Rose's recovery time — the point guard is out indefinitely — the championship expectations the team entered this season with haven't been completely extinguished, but given how he missed all of last season recovering from his torn left ACL, there's no reason to believe either Rose himself or the organization will exercise anything other than caution.
Seeing him limp off the floor Friday night in Portland, not under his own power and unable to put any weight on his right leg, then on crutches in the locker room, there was almost a collective sigh of relief that his injury wasn't more serious. At the same time, however, whatever skepticism observers had about Rose returning to his previous, MVP-level form has only been heightened because of his recent pattern of various ailments, dating back to even before he suffered his season-ending injury in the opening game of the 2012 playoffs. Depending on the severity of his tear and the surgery needed to repair it, Rose technically could be back in a few months, but even assuming that's the case, after witnessing him struggle early in the regular season, it's hard to envision him just jumping back into the swing of things and making a major impact on a nightly basis heading into the playoffs.
And in what state would the Bulls be in if and when the Chicago native could make a successful return this season? At least heading into the injury-plagued campaign of a year ago, the Bulls were prepared, and while reinforcements like Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli were considered underwhelming free-agent signings when they were acquired — it's funny how things change, as the pair evolved into fan favorites after rough starts to the season and even with a healthy Rose, Bulls loyalists have pined for their respective presences — there was no question that they were brought in to hold down the fort in Rose's absence, not complement his game.
Things are different now, as newcomer Mike Dunleavy Jr. was acquired to space the floor and benefit from Rose's drive-and-kick game, while veteran Kirk Hinrich was slated to move into a backup role, either relieving Rose or playing alongside him when called upon. The Bulls didn't make a big splash over the summer because there was no need to, as Rose, even if there were some growing pains as he eventually found his rhythm, was the team's major offseason addition.
Meanwhile, All-Star small forward Luol Deng is in the final year of his current contract and though there were no plans to trade him before the league-wide February deadline, as the Bulls understand he's a vital component if the team is to make a championship push, perhaps getting some combination of a young asset, salary-cap relief or a coveted first-round pick in the loaded 2014 NBA Draft might appeal to an organization that was set to pay the luxury tax. It would be absurd to put the word "tank" in the same sentence as Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau, especially in the dreadful Eastern Conference — where only Miami and Indiana appear to be elite teams in the early going, big-spender squads like Brooklyn are struggling and clubs predicted to be near the bottom, such as Philadelphia, are surprisingly competitive — but whether a title is still realistic has to be assessed sooner, rather than later.
If that goal, a belief that was held throughout the organization, is judged to no longer be in the realm of possibility, then looking toward a future that includes All-Star center Joakim Noah, top reserve Taj Gibson (in a slightly more prominent role, as the decision to amnesty power forward Carlos Boozer would be made easier), currently sidelined swingman Jimmy Butler (and potentially, his fellow 2011 draftee Nikola Mirotic, last season's Euroleague MVP) and Rose as the nucleus might be the way to go. Figuring out who's a keeper amongst second-year point guard Marquis Teague and rookies Tony Snell and Erik Murphy becomes a priority, as does immediately exploring Deng's present value around the league — getting his full worth in return is virtually impossible, as he'll be considered a half-season rental entering unrestricted free agency, but surely there's a team out there that views him as a missing piece to making a postseason run and perhaps convincing him to stick around in the future in the process, while allowing the Bulls to not risk him walking away for nothing — and even Boozer's.
This line of thinking might seem premature to some, as best-case scenarios regarding Rose's return are currently being trotted out, as if optimism from the injury not being as severe as most people feared means that a fairy-tale ending to this saga, with the point guard rushing back on the court, playing better than ever and his inspirational second comeback in just one season would will the Bulls to a championship is somehow more plausible than the doubt that was ingrained in fans even before Friday night. If that, regarding the Bulls as a championship-caliber team — something this writer believed not only heading into the season, but from the undefeated exhibition slate through the rocky 1-3 start — was going out on a limb, then now it's certainly time to face facts: Rose might very well return this season (hopefully by the All-Star break or so, though it's way too early to speculate on his recovery timetable until the procedure takes place), but from a big-picture perspective, if the Bulls are going to tread as cautiously with this return as they did with the last one, even taking the difference in injuries into consideration, then wouldn't it make sense for the organization to accordingly adjust their long-term approach with the team in a similar fashion?
After all, Rose is the Bulls' centerpiece, and the franchise's long-term investment in Rose means that every attempt to capitalize on what should be the prime years of his career should be made. So if that means sacrificing in the present to get a head start on the future, then so be it.