It’s not about being the league’s Most Valuable Player in November or December; it’s not about highlight dunks and take-your-breath–away moves. We’ve seen it; he’s done it. He looks like he could do it again, if necessary. We’ll call him again in March or April or May and let him know we’re ready.
Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls

Derrick Rose continues to climb

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By Sam Smith | 12.10.2014 | 8:39 a.m. CT

In Derrick Rose’s last five games since the worrisome departure at halftime in Denver, Rose in 30 minutes per game is averaging 15.4 points, 5.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds. He is shooting 36.9 percent overall and 28.9 percent on threes, 11 of 38.

Bravo! Keep it up. Derrick.

No, they are hardly MVP numbers as the Bulls are 3-2 in that stretch (12-8 overall) as they host the Brooklyn Nets Wednesday in the United Center.

But it’s a significant progression for Rose as he continues to play this season as he should.

It’s not about being the league’s Most Valuable Player in November or December; it’s not about highlight dunks and take-your-breath–away moves. We’ve seen it; he’s done it. He looks like he could do it again, if necessary. We’ll call him again in March or April or May and let him know we’re ready.

“He knows, he knows,” Joakim Noah said after practice Tuesday as Noah will miss Wednesday’s game to rest his ankle while the Nets will be without Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. “I think it’s important for Derrick to be aggressive and pick and choose when the right time is in the game and get guys going. He’s the floor general, the point guard. It’s a lot going on, but the more he plays, the better it’s going to be.”

Of course, everyone would love to see Rose magically reform as the spectacular, once-in-a-generation player he looked like when winning the 2011 NBA Most Valuable Player award. No one ever had truly seen a player like that, the speed, the acceleration, the derring-do on the fast break. You could look it up, as Casey Stengel would say; no one ever had seen a player that size do those things with that sort of panache and smash.

But you change, you grow, you get injured.

Of course, Rose’s injury history is much known and much discussed. This season, in many respects, has been portrayed as a test flight for his return.

At the same time, it is a season with the addition of Pau Gasol, who is having one of his best seasons, and the development of Jimmy Butler, who is having his best, as a season in which the Bulls are contenders for a title.

“I think it’s only the beginning,” added Noah. “It’s 20 games in now. I still believe that we can get a lot better. Just being on the sideline (Monday and Tuesday) watching practices; they were very competitive. Guys are working hard. I just really believe we will be a lot better.”

Rose’s inclusion and involvement with that is crucial, though not more so than Noah’s or Gasol’s or Butler’s.

It’s why Noah can’t be in his usual headlong and headstrong rush to play through everything and why Rose’s game is more measured.

When Rose made his famous declaration at the start of the 2010-11 season asking why he couldn’t be the league MVP, everyone was ready with the answer: You won’t score enough.

Yes, Rose had averaged 20.8 points per game the previous season. But it also seemed he had too much to do with running the team. Plus, he averaged a modest 16.8 as a rookie and 14.9 per game his one season in college going to the championship game. It just didn’t seem like he was that kind of player.

But to push the Bulls to greater heights, Rose pushed himself to the ultimate in the NBA. It was a remarkable climb.

But that was about the Bulls, a .500 team knocked out in the first round of the playoffs in both of Rose’s seasons, gaining credibility as a league force. They would with Rose and the addition of coach Tom Thibodeau. And no one realized quite how close they were to a title in 2012 when Rose first was injured. First round eliminations will do that.

It was a mountain with the summit out of view with Rose out the last two seasons.

The Bulls can once again see the peak, but it will be a slow climb.

Rose seems to understand.

After practice Monday when a lot of discussion was devoted to his strong statement with his “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirt before Saturday’s game, Rose also addressed some of the recent questions about his play and what many have noticed in a tendency to hold back some on his drives and shoot more three pointers.

“I'm taking a lot (of threes), but I feel like that's an easy shot,” said Rose. “I know I'll have a game where I'll string four or five of them and it's just going to help my confidence. My teammates know they're great shots for me. I'm a scoring point guard, so my game is scoring a little bit more than passing or facilitating. But when you have more scoring on the team, you can facilitate a little bit more. So picking and choosing my spots is kind of hard right now. But I'm going to learn it pretty quickly. I know the more I play, my driving game is going to be there. I've got to get used to guys going under screens. I'm shooting open shots they're giving me.”

It seems even more than that.

It seems clear Rose Saturday was concentrating on his defense on Stephen Curry, which was excellent as Curry had 13 points until the last 24 seconds of the game when the Bulls were intentionally fouling. You’ll also see tendencies in players who are older or who have been injured; they’ll shoot more three pointers or look for the areas of less resistance.

Rose has been artful this way in his best sustained stretch of the season after a sprained ankle and hamstring strain. He hadn’t played more than two consecutives games until these last two weeks when he’s played five straight. It doesn’t sound like much, but these remained the incremental goals of the season.

So Rose has done, as he’s said he would, listen to his body. He’s not only had to reteach his body but redirect his game for maximum effect for the team.

A coach’s goal—and job—doesn’t always sound the same.

Thibodeau Tuesday when asked about Rose’s play, said:

“He’s got to attack. That’s the bottom line. Some teams are going under (screens) and some teams will adjust to a blitz. All I know is when he’s pushing the ball up the floor and attacking, that’s who he is. He can’t defer. He can’t pace himself. He’s got to go. That’s the big thing. I’m not going to measure every play. It’s an instinctive game. We have to trust him. But I know when he has played well this year he’s been in attack mode. It’s going to take time. We knew that. He’s stringing games together. The last two days in practice, he has been terrific. Those are all great signs. I just want him to keep building, get better day by day. Concentrate on improvement. Don’t overthink it. Get out there and play, attack, be aggressive.

“By nature, he’s trying to fit in right now,” added Thibodeau. “It’s a new team for him. He’s trying to learn his teammates. He’s playing off people. We need him to go. Just go. Great players will figure it out. Pau will figure it out. Joakim, Jimmy, they’re going to figure it out. That’s the way it is.”

It’s not a contradiction, either.

The coach’s job, like any good teacher, is to push the student; push all the students. Identify what they do best and hold the carrot out there as far as you can to help the student reach heights perhaps they could not imagine for themselves. It doesn’t mean it has to be done immediately, or at all.

That’s the job of the coach and Thibodeau does it well. Like during the games with his defensive demands. If they were executed as he asks, the opponent might never score. But you accept the result and move on to the next challenge.

Rose seems to be doing that brilliantly in the first quarter of this season. He’s endured the unexpected setbacks not from his knees but from the everyday NBA injuries: Someone’s foot in the wrong place, someone’s floor a little too slick.

So he’s begun to put the pieces in place for a better Rose: Three point shooting, defense, improved passing, fitting in with the most talent he’s ever played with on the Bulls. It’s hardly seamless with a half dozen new players and someone who looks like the Jimmy Butler we remembered.

But it suggests an encouraging climb.

Seemingly more so than the Nets, who arrive 8-11 missing Johnson and Lopez; and amidst media reports that most of their starters could be involved in trade talks for perhaps a rebuilding.

It suggests a much more pleasing atmosphere among the Bulls and a much rosier outlook for a Derrick Rose who appears to be following a path of wisdom and maturity this season that could lead to a greater reward.