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The Rose Return: When good of player, good of team collide

Rose Return: When good of player and good of team don't line up

POSTED: Mar 13, 2013 3:16 PM ET
UPDATED: Mar 13, 2013 5:55 PM ET

By Isiah Thomas

BY Isiah Thomas


Derrick Rose (flanked by teammates Joakim Noah, left, and Luol Deng) is not yet ready to return.

The Chicago Bulls and former MVP Derrick Rose are facing one of the toughest decisions in sports; deciding between player health and championship aspirations.

In baseball last season, we saw the Washington Nationals shut down their young star pitcher, 24-year-old Stephen Strasburg, near the end of a successful season. The Nats decided to protect Strasburg after elbow surgery, deeming his long-term health more important than bettering their chances at a World Series title.

We saw Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, the Redskins' management and coaches face the same dilemma. Player health vs. championship aspirations? Griffin played, further injured his knee and required postseason surgery, leaving us all to wonder whether he will ever be the same player again.

Rose returning from a knee injury and playing well is a prospect that could make LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat lose sleep at night. A healthy Rose returning to the Bulls is maybe the biggest threat aimed at the shores of Miami. Chicago is eerily similar to our Detroit Pistons championship teams in a lot of ways; strong up front with Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Taj Gibson, all great rebounders and strong defenders. They defend and play the pick-and-roll as a group better than anyone.

But the Bulls are built for and built around their star point guard. If Rose is healthy and at the top of his game, Chicago is a legitimate threat -- if not a favorite -- to win it all. That's what makes this decision so extremely difficult for the Bulls, for NBA fans and for Rose. It is a moral dilemma that we ignore every day in sports.

Is an athlete simply a means to an end?

In Game 6 of the 1989 NBA Finals against the Lakers, I played on a severely sprained ankle, running the risk of a career-ending ankle displacement. I was willing to be a means to an end for my team and for the city of Detroit. Some of the most iconic memories in sports have been accomplished while players were injured. We will never forget Willis Reed of the New York Knicks putting it all on the line and becoming a means to an end when he limped out of the tunnel In Madison Square Garden in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals.

Is it ever acceptable for an athlete to protect himself and not risk it all, to preserve his years of earning capacity and health? No one should ever be treated only as a means to an end.

We might look to philosophy when determining right from wrong and what is in the individual's and the collective's (in this case, the team's) best interests. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes people as rational beings who have value and dignity which should not be used by others for the benefit of others.

Let's apply that philosophy to players, coaches and management. Those groups often find themselves in a dilemma, at every level of play. We have seen players undervaluing their value to themselves by taking "magic" potions to become winners, knowing full well the damage that they're doing to their internal organs, potentially shortening their lives and careers. These athletes treat their bodies as a means to an end.

Fans want to see Rose perform, to see him risk it all, to become the full means to an end. But even then there is no guarantee of winning the championship. Are we OK with using the athletes in this way? Are we OK with using "mind games" to convince or coerce a player to make the sacrifice of himself for the greater good -- a championship?

Kant and most moral philosophers would see this as immoral. But in sports this dilemma is played out daily. Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls are on the clock.

Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, a 6-foot-1 guard from Indiana University, was the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. He is a 12-time All-Star who played his entire 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90. He won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in '90. Thomas also has been a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA.

He's now an analyst for NBA TV and will be a regular contributor to

You can follow him on Twitter at @iamisiahthomas.