Chicago’s Derrick Rose Dilemma

Twenty-seven years ago the Chicago Bulls faced the same problem they face today: when to bring back a superstar from injury. They took a cautionary route with Michael Jordan‘s foot injury then and are doing the same thing now with Derrick Rose‘s return from a torn ACL [Watch Rose dunk in pregame warmups yesterday]. Jordan returned from his October injury in mid-March and Rose appears to be on pace for a similar return date. No one is suggesting that Rose return before he is healthy, but some wonder if he should play it safe and return for next season.

The argument for his return this year centers on the team’s success without him and how wide-open the Eastern Conference is outside of the Heat. The Bulls are fifth in the East at 32-24 and only three games behind the Pacers for second in the East. Nate Robinson has done his best filling in for Rose and coach Tom Thibodeau‘s defense is as consistent and suffocating as ever. Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah have adjusted their play without Rose to lead the team. Playing without their superstar, the Bulls have kept themselves in contention awaiting his return and have gotten valuable experience carrying a team without him. Adding a healthy Rose to the mix could propel them back to championship contenders.

But they wouldn’t be adding MVP Derrick Rose. It’s unrealistic to expect Rose to immediately return to his former level. With reports saying that he still has a ways to go before returning, he would likely have less than 20 games to get ready for the playoffs. Rose is a great player, but he won’t dominate like MJ did. Expectations need to be severely tempered if he does lace up at all this season.

Like any good drama, the story isn’t complete without discussing a talkative — to put it gently — family member. Rose’s brother, Reggie, spoke out against the Bulls for not improving the team in Derrick’s absence. He went as far as suggesting that Derrick might not return because of the lack of improvement to his supporting cast. Derrick released a statement in support of the Bulls, but Reggie did make some interesting points.

Yes, Reggie would have been better off keeping quiet about the team, and there is no chance a competitor like Rose would delay his return longer than necessary. The Bulls, however, haven’t improved their personnel since losing 4-1 in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals to the Heat.

For a variety of reasons, including the new salary cap restrictions and Rose’s injury, the Bulls lost two key players from last year’s team in Kyle Korver and Omer Asik, along with valuable players in C.J. Watson and Ronnie Brewer. They were replaced by the cheaper contracts of Robinson, Kirk Hinrich and Marco Belinelli who quite simply aren’t as good. Credit for the team’s success this year with lesser pieces to work with should go to Thibodeau’s elite coaching.

The Bulls were also quiet at the trade deadline to the chagrin of Reggie Rose. As unpopular as the strategy has been with fans, the Bulls made the right choices. The coming salary cap changes are resulting in financial belt-tightening around the league. In a season without Rose, it makes better economic sense to pay Hinrich less than $4 million instead of paying Korver $5 million. It’s not like the Bulls are swimming in cap space to begin with, either. They are a tax-payer this season and likely will be next season as well. Getting under the cap would require not picking up Rip Hamilton‘s option and amnestying Carlos Boozer. As tantalizing as those options sound, finding better replacements would be difficult because they would only be slightly under the cap to fill out the roster.

The Bulls are in a no-win situation so they face criticism at every turn, but they have been prudent in their decision-making. Scaling back slightly on their drive for a championship this year, even if it means not playing Rose at all, is the right choice for the long-term health of the team. There is no reason to risk Rose being reinjured when the reward would likely be another playoff date with LeBron James and the Heat with a lesser team this time around.

How would you grade Chicago’s moves over the past two years?

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