A month ago, the Chicago Bulls announced that Derrick Rose, who's missed the entire season while rehabbing the ACL tear he suffered in the first game of the 2012 playoffs, was taking "predictable contact" in practices. In the time since that report, Rose has become a more active participant in practices — two weeks ago, he even started taking full contact. By all indications, he was close to returning to games.
It now appears that he might not be back quite so soon as anticipated. According to Rose, he wants to make sure that he's fully healthy before he hits the court. Or, mathematically, beyond that point. From Jeff Zillgitt for USA Today (via SLAM):
"I don't have a set date," Rose told USA TODAY Sports on Monday in his first extensive interview since the 2012-13 NBA season began. "I'm not coming back until I'm 110%. Who knows when that can be? It can be within a couple of weeks. It could be next year. It could be any day. It could be any time. It's just that I'm not coming back until I'm ready."
How close is Rose to 110%? "Right now, probably in the high 80s," he said. "Far away. Far away." [...]
In the meantime, Rose continues to work and contemplates the kind of player he will be when he returns.
"I know it's going to be something good. With all this hard work I've been putting into my game, I'm doing stuff I never did before. I gained 10, 11 pounds of muscle. I don't know what type of player I'm going to be. I just know that I'm going to be very good."
In broad terms, this report is absolutely in keeping with what Rose and the Bulls have said all along; they're going to take the rehabilitation one day at a time and not cut corners. On the other hand, the general assumption has been that Rose would return when it was feasible, but not necessarily when he was 100 percent.
The Bulls currently have the fourth-best record in the East, and it stands to reason that even a hobbled Rose could help them become the top challenger to the Miami Heat to represent the conference in the NBA Finals. His return could turn a playoff team into a contender, which by standard NBA logic means that he should return. So why wouldn't he?
The answer is complicated and dependent on circumstances. Rose is only 24 years old and, in theory, has many, many years of All-NBA quality left in his career. While the Bulls have a chance to win a title this year, they'll also need to reintegrate Rose into the lineup over the course of a few short months. The challenge is far more difficult than it would be in a normal season, and the relative reward isn't worth risking Rose's long-term health. The Bulls are trying to build a team that will contend for many years, and if Rose is nursing nagging knee injuries then they'll have a much more difficult time accomplishing it.
It's become somewhat standard to claim that NBA players should fight through injury to help their teams no matter what, but these issues are almost always dependent on the circumstances of a particular case. In recent weeks, Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard has been criticized for not playing through pain. While I tend to think that Howard should sit out when he feels he needs to (and also that he's already playing with back problems), the arguments that he should play can be convincing simply because the Lakers are an old team with a different sense of urgency than a younger squad. Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash might not have more than one or two years of peak effectiveness together (if that), and they have an understandable desire to give their all while that ability lasts. They can't afford to wait around.
But Rose and the Bulls can take their time, and they have every reason to do so. In a competitive league where success is always tenuous, it can be tempting to chase every opportunity to win a championship. The Bulls are weighing the risk of laying off this season's slim odds against sacrificing their long-term viability. If they opt to preserve their future, it's hard to argue with their reasoning.