Derrick Rose is hurt again. Where do the Bulls go from here?

28 Comments

CHICAGO—On Tuesday night, the Bulls delivered the devastating news that Derrick Rose would need yet another knee surgery after suffering a second tear of the medial meniscus in his right knee. It was a crushing blow for Rose and for the Bulls, who had been rounding into shape as the contenders everyone thought they’d be. The loss of Rose opens up a lot of questions about this team’s future both in the short and long term.

How long will Rose be out?

At shootaround on Wednesday morning, Thibodeau said that when Rose had the last surgery, the team knew it was a possibility he’d tear the meniscus again.

Rose’s timetable for recovery is not clear, and it won’t be until after he undergoes knee surgery. A date for the procedure still hasn’t been set, and we don’t know what kind of surgery he’ll opt for. Last season, he chose to repair the meniscus rather than remove it, which meant missing the rest of the season. If he goes that route again, then he will once again miss the rest of the year.

If Rose chooses to remove the meniscus instead of repair it, he could be back sooner, maybe even by the time of the playoffs. This is the route that Eric Bledsoe, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and others have gone, and it’s risky. It allows them to come back sooner, but it can be more detrimental to their long-term health.

Plus, we’re far enough into the season now that a six-week recovery from the latter surgery (likely the best-case scenario) would put Rose on pace to come back in the second week of April, with just a few games left before the playoffs start. Even if he’s fully physically cleared to play, the mental hurdles that come with it are going to be tough for Rose to clear, especially after everything he’s been through. It’s already been an up-and-down process to integrate him back into the starting lineup after two years off, and his play was uneven. Throwing him back into playoff-level action coming right off this surgery and expecting him to play at a high level is unrealistic at best and reckless at worst.

The team will know more after Rose undergoes surgery, but it’s a safe assumption that they will be going the rest of the season without him.

Will the Bulls make a move in the short term?

It’s bad luck for the Bulls that Rose’s injury was discovered after the trade deadline, because their ability to make moves is now extremely limited. Chicago has an open roster spot, but they can only sign a player to a 10-day contract or the veteran’s minimum. There’s a good chance they do that.

“I’m sure John and Gar have a list of guys and we’ll be hearing from a lot of people,” Thibodeau said at shootaround. “But right now, we’re concerned about Derrick and the guys we do have here. I don’t know what options we may have. We’re always looking at different options anyway. But we haven’t discussed anything yet.”

One player who immediately comes to mind is Nate Robinson, who has been without a team since January. Robinson was Rose’s fill-in for the 2012-13 season, most notable for scoring 34 points in a triple-overtime playoff win over the Brooklyn Nets. He was a fan favorite and excelled as a source of instant offense off the bench when he was in Chicago. But the Bulls already have Aaron Brooks for that role, and they might go the direction of bringing in a facilitator instead.

Mike James, another Thibodeau favorite, is a name they could look at. That’s the caliber of player they’d be able to bring in. Unless something unexpected happens on the buyout market before the March 1 playoff-eligibility deadline, the options are pretty unexciting. But with the point-guard depth limited now to Brooks and Kirk Hinrich, who has battled injuries of his own this season, it’s a good bet that they’ll bring in somebody.

How far can the Bulls go without Rose this season?

They’re probably not title contenders without Rose, as inconsistent as he’s been. But they still have plenty of talent, and a coach that has specialized in getting the absolute most out of any collection of players he has, no matter what. They’re still going to be competitive—that much is obvious.

The good news is that this Bulls team is much more talented than either of the previous two. Last year, after Rose went down and Luol Deng was traded to Cleveland, the team’s leading scorer was D.J. Augustin. This year, they have more weapons. Jimmy Butler has emerged as an All-Star talent and first option on offense, which he wasn’t last year. Pau Gasol commands a double-team. Tony Snell, who has emerged as a threat since the All-Star break, will get more time.

Combine that with the steadiness of Taj Gibson and the improved recent play of a finally-healthy Joakim Noah, and the Bulls absolutely could—and probably will—win a first-round series.

Beyond that, who knows? A trip to the Eastern Conference Finals depends on the matchup they get in the second round, and none of those look favorable. The Hawks and Cavs are the two strongest teams in the conference, and beating either one of them in a seven-game series is a rough proposition without Rose. Even if they had him, those teams are so deep and talented that it would have been a bloodbath. As inconsistent as Rose has been, the dropoff from him to Brooks and Hinrich is huge. Just the threat of him having a game like the 30-point explosion against the Cavs right before the All-Star break is something that will be extremely difficult to make up.

The likeliest scenario is a second-round exit, unless Rose shocks the league and comes back in time for the playoffs and plays his best basketball of the season. Don’t hold your breath.

How does Rose’s injury impact the franchise’s long-term outlook?

For better or worse, this Bulls core will be what the Bulls have to work with for the next several years. Butler hits restricted free agency this summer, and the team has been adamant that they’ll match any offer he gets. Noah is too good to trade and has too much of an injury history to get fair value for.

Even if the Bulls wanted to cut their losses with Rose after this latest injury—and there’s been no indication that they do—moving him would be next to impossible. He’s set to make $20 million next season and $21.3 million in 2016-17, and will be coming off what is now three consecutive knee surgeries. The Bulls and Rose are in it for the long haul together, regardless of what he’s able to do on the court.

Still, even if Rose gives them nothing over the final two years of his deal, Chicago has a solid core of Butler, Noah, Gibson and Nikola Mirotic to build around. And if Rose is never again the superstar he was before the injuries, it’s still not unreasonable to expect him to be a contributor in a smaller role.

The more interesting wrinkle of his injury is what it might mean for Tom Thibodeau’s future. The coach and the Bulls’ front office don’t have a great relationship as it is. That’s been widely reported. But as long as they’re winning, it’s going to be difficult to part ways. Another season-ending Rose injury taking them out of title contention would potentially make it easier for the team to decide that the Thibodeau era has run its course.

There is a lot of uncertainty around the Bulls after the injury, both in the short and long term. Losing a player like Rose again sucks on both a basketball level and a professional level, and it remains to be seen how the team will respond. But the future isn’t all dark.