The Wilting of a Rose

 

 

It is a nice bit of NBA trivia; who is the youngest ever winner of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award? Derrick Rose was 22 years and 5 months old when he eclipsed Wes Unseld to claim that title. Now, at age 28 (he will be 29 when the season starts) Rose has accepted a veteran minimum $2.1 million, one year deal to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers. This, in the same off-season that fellow point guard and MVP winner Steph Curry – who is the same age as Rose – signed a five year, $201 million deal, the biggest contract in NBA history.

So how did Derrick Rose get to this point? Just like the famed wilting rose in The Beauty and the Beast, Derrick is slowly dropping petal by petal and in danger of disappearing.

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The Injuries

The first major petal that fell from Rose’s career was when he sustained an ACL injury in April of 2012, causing the Chicago Bulls to lose their star for the rest of the playoffs and the following season. At the time, the Bulls were the #1 seed in the East, and eventually lost to the #8 seed Sixers in the first round of the playoffs. More petals fell wasted to the floor as successive knee injuries in 2013 and 2014 felled Rose’s legacy to ‘remember when’ status.

By the time he was traded to the New York Knicks at the beginning of the 2016/17 season, Rose had played 166 regular season games for the Bulls over his last five seasons, compared to 240 in his first three.

Multiple knee injuries are debilitating for any professional basketball player, but it hit Derrick Rose harder than most. Rose by 2011 was a better-than-prototypical athlete for a point guard, sporting elite level physical attributes. His upper body strength, first-step explosiveness, lateral movement and speed were all a class above. When those physical attributes were combined with his ability to get to the rim and his finishing skills, Rose was simply unstoppable. It’s not hard to see how Rose found himself the youngest MVP in NBA history. 

Post-multiple-knee-injuries Derrick Rose has still maintained those skills, but his speed and lateral quickness are notably diminished, and are unlikely to ever be as good as they once were. Another petal had fallen. After the Knicks traded for him last off-season, Coach Jeff Hornacek said it best;

“[h]e may not be the Derrick Rose from four or five [years] ago, with all the speed…’

The Game Has Changed

‘but he’s still pretty darn quick’ Coach Hornacek would finish. The trade to the Knicks at the beginning of last season seemed a way of stemming the rate that those petals would fall. A change of scenery and linking up with Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis was thought to maybe provide Rose just what he needed to get his career back on track. If Rose could get the Knicks back into the playoffs, a semblance of relevance in the NBA would be found again for both he and New York basketball.

Fast forward to the end of the season and the results aren’t encouraging. Another knee injury – this time a torn meniscus to his left knee – which limited him to 64 games, an offence which didn’t suit his strengths (instead played to his weaknesses), and a clear demonstration that the game has moved on from the isolation, one-guy-can-get-it-done offensive style that originally made Rose an MVP.

This isn’t to say that Rose doing the best impression of what he once was, isn’t an effective floor general. On a poor Knicks squad, Rose clearly made an impact averaging 18.0 points, 4.4 assists and 3.8 rebounds in 64 games before suffering that meniscus tear. All were his highest averages since 2012. Yet, even in a weak Eastern Conference with a roster that included Anthony and Porzingis, the Knicks couldn’t broach the playoffs, ultimately finishing  12th.

The Knicks were also one of the few teams that didn’t seem to bend with the wind, stubbornly adhering to the triangle offence. We are in the midst of a revolution for the standard requirements of an NBA player to match the aspirations for the multi-threat, pseudo-position-less offences employed by the best teams in the league, a revolution unsurprisingly being led by the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Almost gone are the days of the scoring point guard who used a high dosage of isolation sets to get their looks, offences that were made for players such as Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Stephon Marbury and even Allen Iverson. Undoubtedly there is still scoring focused point guards in the league, but they all contain skill sets which bend towards a more conducive team offence. Steph Curry, James Harden and Isaiah Thomas (to name a few) are all score heavy point guards, but all are highly skilled, including being elite shooters. Instead of using a higher frequency of isolation sets to get their looks, their opportunities are folded into and come from more team orientated offensive systems. As such, today’s point guard has to be able to play off the ball as well as on it. They have to be able to score and they have to be able to facilitate. They must be able to get to the rim, and most importantly be able to shoot. The philosophical change offensively coupled with an increased depth at the guard position (discussed later) generally has meant that while you can still ‘hide’ poor defenders for a time, they will eventually be found out (examples include Isaiah Thomas, and of course this James Harden youtube video).

Defence, shooting from range and facilitating are areas that Rose has historically been poor at, and his play with the Knicks last season was much of the same. Rose made his team five points worse defensively according to basketball-reference.com when he was on the court for the Knicks, shot below 30% from three and took less than one attempt a game, and averaged a low 4.4 assists when compared with other scoring guards.

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Point Guard Competition and Depth

The current depth of elite quality point guards is undeniable, and are more numerous than ever before. Comparing the 2016/17 season MVP top 10 voting against the 2010/11 MVP top 10 voting, 2016/17 had five point guards: Westbrook 1st, Harden 2nd, Thomas 5th, Curry 6th and Wall 7th, and 2010/11 had just two: Rose 1st and Rajon Rondo who tied for 10th.

Add to that list of 2016/17 star point guards like nine time All Star Chris Paul, former NBA Champion Kyrie Irving, highly rated Mike Conley Jnr, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Lowry and a handful of youngsters who despite not yet playing an NBA game will likely be handed the keys to their respective teams. This includes Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith Jnr and 2016 first overall pick Ben Simmons. It is clear that the point guard position in today’s NBA is stocked with high end talent. Bleacher Report’s end of year positional power rankings had Rose at 27, sandwiched between Ish Smith and an injury ravaged, 34 year old Tony Parker.

Teams this off-season seemed to have a preference to keep the point guards they already had, or turn towards a younger and/or less injury prone player than Derrick Rose. Another example is George Hill who after declining to sign an extension with the Jazz mid-season to seek a better and longer deal as an unrestricted free agent, saw the market fall out from under him as potential suitors either re-signed their players, traded or drafted for new ones or went with cheaper options. In the end, Hill signed a 3 year $57 million contract, a deal that likely wasn’t much better than the extension offer from the Jazz (the exact details of Utah’s offer have never been made public).

Rose found an even harsher reality waiting for him in Free Agency. The Knicks spent pick 8 in the 2017 draft on French point guard Frank Ntilikina, opting for a youth movement behind Kristaps Porzingas. Teams wanting to compete either had better point guards or went with players who could shoot the three. Rose had interest from the Bulls, Bucks and the Lakers, but similar to the Knicks, all three teams have their future at point guard clearly lying elsewhere. The Bucks already have Malcolm Brogdon, the Lakers have Lonzo Ball and the Bulls are in full rebuild mode – potentially behind Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine – and Rose didn’t seem interested in playing mentor.

Rose’s last season averages of 18, 4 and 4 are nothing to sneeze at, but it’s somewhat fitting that Rose and Rondo, the sole point guards in the top 10 of the 2011/12 MVP voting have both had to settle for one year veteran minimum deals. For Rose to recapture his standing as one of the game’s most revered point guards (and to earn back some of his lost income), he must change his game.

Where To From Here – Rose As a Cleveland Cavalier

Derrick Rose still has the talent and the capabilities to make an impact in the NBA, of that there is little doubt. However, the reality for Rose is that to be a factor into the future he needs to adjust his game. He will likely never find himself the best player on a successful team again, and therefore needs to develop a more team-friendly offensive game to fit in with such teams. That will come in the form of  developing a stronger outside jump shot, and becoming a better facilitator. A good comparison is Chris Paul, who continued to morph his game as his physical dominance started to receded back to the fold.

An improved jump shot should be priority number one as he has never developed a consistent ability to knock down the outside shot. Rose was knocking on the door of that allusive consistent long range shot, averaging over 30% between 2010/11 and 2013/14 (reminder: he missed the entire 2012/13 season through injury). Now, after multiple knee injuries which has impacted those very traits that made him stand out, the reliance on an all around skill set as a point guard, starting with a better jumper has never been more paramount.

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The caveat on the Cavs next season is clearly the unknown conclusion to Kyrie Irving’s trade request. It seems likely that a deal will get done as it would seem the relationship has eroded past the point of no return, and a young All-Star with two years remaining on their contract will always have currency in this league. But without knowing what the Cavs will likely receive in compensation, it’s hard to determine Rose’s potential role for the Cavs this upcoming season.

If all had been well in Cleveland and Irving was happy to stay, it would follow that Rose would be the prime 6th man for the Cavs in 2017/18. It would be a role that would benefit all; it would relieve the burden on LeBron James, Kevin Love and Irving, as well as match Rose against second string defenses. Even if the Cavs don’t receive a starting caliber point guard in return for Irving, Coach Tyronn Lue may still opt to bring Rose off the bench, and start someone like Jose Calderon instead.

Regardless of Rose’s role on the Cavaliers, it will be interesting to see how his game intertwines with LeBron. One of the major issues Irving apparently has is that the offence is controlled too often by James, something that will likely remain unchanged with Rose on-board. Per NBA.com, Irving benefited from this by receiving a large portion of open three point shots last season, attempting 294 and making 119 (40%) in 72 games where the closest defender was 4+ feet away. Comparatively, Rose attempted only 47 and made 11 (23%) in 64 games. The difference in attempts can be in part attributed to the offensive difference between their respective teams. New York attempted 1,614 shots where the closest defender was 4+ feet away, and the Cavs had 2,257 attempts. Still, those percentages don’t lie, and LeBron James – and indeed the entire offensive philosophy of the Cavs – will mean that Rose will find the ball in his hands, open, on the perimeter more often.

Derrick Rose will likely never be restored to the athletic heights, or offensive prominence of his former glory. However, by signing with the Cavs, he can potentially bring glory to his career, especially if he can be the catalyst for overcoming the Golden State Warriors, and move back from ‘remember when’ to ‘look what he can do’ status. Rose still has some game left, and faces a critical season with the Cavs to – once and for all – stop the petals of his career falling to the floor.


Stats courtesy of basketball-reference
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