CHICAGO — Imagine Sandy Koufax with access to Tommy John surgery. Think how much modern orthopedic and training techniques might have helped Bobby Orr, Joe Namath or Gale Sayers.
Now picture Derrick Rose in the era of load management.
The term that’s all the rage in the NBA these days — and the source of some controversy, for sitting out healthy players as a means of injury prevention — didn’t require medical breakthroughs achieved over decades. Load management is simply an approach, a self-discipline by teams in rationing out a player’s usage to maximize his availability by, er, limiting his availability.
Rose, alas, arrived six or seven years too soon to benefit from it. Load management didn’t exist as a league-wide trend when he suffered in April 2012 the ACL blowout to his left knee that forever altered his NBA trajectory.
“All the time in Chicago when I was coming back, load management wasn’t a term then,” Rose told NBA.com this week. “Back then, it was, ‘He’s [expletive] being lazy.’”
There were no healthy DNPs back then. Very few at all until San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich began to force the issue with veteran stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The idea spread to those overseeing others such as LeBron James, Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis. Over time, getting random games off became almost a status symbol, signifying membership among the NBA’s elite.
Kawhi Leonard’s trade to Toronto heightened the tactic’s profile as the Raptors chased and won the 2019 NBA Finals. Though Leonard sat out 22 games last season, he still was named to the All-NBA second team and finished ninth in MVP balloting.
By contrast, when Rose missed 16 games in 2015-16, his final season with the Bulls, the onus still was on him: damaged goods. For the fourth year in a row.
“They expect [you to miss games] now,” Rose said. “They know, ‘OK, he’s not going to get through the year [playing 82]. But as long as we get to the playoffs, that’s when we need him.’ It’s funny how things change.”
Rose at 22 had become the NBA’s youngest MVP in 2010-11. The next season, in the hurried-up, lockout-shortened schedule, he missed 27 of 66 games, coping with five separate injuries. Then late in Game 1 of the playoffs, he blew out his knee in the first round against Philadelphia.
Even the NBA’s view of ACL reconstruction and recovery has changed since then. Players like Golden State’s Klay Thompson essentially are told “See you in a year,” with anything quicker than that viewed as a bonus. Rose’s timeline was pegged initially at 8-to-10 months, which translated into pressure on him to return in 2012-13.
When that didn’t happen, some fans, media folks and even friends inside the Bulls organization began to question his toughness and drive.
Interestingly, Rose this week mentioned NFL running back Adrian Peterson as another factor influencing the perception of his rehab. Peterson tore the ACL and MCL in his left knee in December 2011. But he was back in the Minnesota Vikings’ lineup in Week 1 of 2012. He played in all 16 games, rushed for a league-best 2,097 yards and was chosen the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
All the time in Chicago when I was coming back, load management wasn’t a term then.
And here was Rose, taking 17 months between appearances for the Bulls. So what if it was an apples vs. oranges comparison.
“Everybody was taking football and kind of translating that over to what was going on with me,” Rose said. “Don’t get me wrong, that’s a helluva accomplishment. But it’s crazy that people tried to compare us.”
Fortunately, Rose can look back on his career-altering injury — and a series of meniscus tears and other ailments in its wake — from a happier vantage point than, say, Brandon Roy, Jay Williams, Penny Hardaway or Yao Ming. He’s been active, happy, healthy and productive for the Detroit Pistons through their first five games, showing flashes of — if not his best self — his steadier, more reliable style arrived at in recent years.
Heading into an always anticipated return to Chicago’s United Center Friday, Rose has averaged 20.4 points and 6.2 assists while shooting 55.3 percent off the Pistons’ bench. He had 16 points and 10 assists at Toronto Wednesday, playing less than 21 minutes.
And that’s been the key. Whether getting 18 and 10 in the opener, scoring 27 and 31 in Detroit’s next two games or attacking for the winning layup against Indiana Monday, Rose has yet to play as much as 27 minutes.
This is load management as minutes restriction, managed nightly. Rose is playing less but more often.
“I got to watch his minutes,” Casey told Detroit reporters. “I try to keep his minutes around 27, 28. That limits us to what we can do with him. … If it’s tight or close, we may fudge the numbers a little bit, but for the most part, we’re going to keep it around that number each and every night.”
Casey also said: “I’m not going to sit here and ramp up and ruin a guy’s comeback career by getting excited and playing him 30 minutes and losing him for two or three games.”
It’s worth noting, for perspective, how Rose has done — really — since his notorious injury.
Coming into 2019-20, over 267 games in six seasons split between the Bulls, Knicks, Cavaliers and Timberwolves, Rose had averaged 16.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Admittedly, that’s not up to his All-Star, MVP form of his first four seasons (21.0, 3.8, 6.8).
They expect [you to miss games] now. They know, ‘OK, he’s not going to get through the year [playing 82]. But as long as we get to the playoffs, that’s when we need him.’ It’s funny how things change.”
But only 15 guards in the NBA matched or bettered Rose’s averages — 16.6, 3.1, 4.3 — over the same period. In each of those seasons, those stats were reached or topped by anywhere from 12 to 17 guards.
“That’s my ammunition,” Rose said. “I know I’ve been hooping, but everybody wants to go right to my MVP year.”
Rose has been a solid, occasionally electric contributor since then, most recently with the Timberwolves. His 50-point throwback performance on Halloween 2018 was one of the season’s feel-good moments. Rose had three more games for Minnesota scoring at least 30 points, with another 20 scoring 20-29.
After doing that on a veteran’s minimum contract, Rose earned a two-year, $15 million payday from Detroit.
Rose said he understood why his drop from great to good might not have played so well had he stayed with the Bulls. “I didn’t fault anybody for that,” he said. “I would want my favorite player, too, to come back and have a crazy year.”
The Pistons don’t need that. Casey is glad to have an offensive option to what became overreliance last spring on forward Blake Griffin. The team especially has welcomed that with Griffin out so far with a sore hamstring.
In a recent interview on SiriusXM’s NBA Radio, former Bulls and Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau spoke excitedly about Rose. “I think he’ll be phenomenal. To persevere through that, when you’ve had to sit out a year with an injury, that’s a tough deal in itself. But to deal with it three consecutive years, I don’t know, I’m just really proud of him.”
Asked what he plays for now, compared to a decade ago, Rose mentioned winning and his three children, in leaving a legacy of not quitting. Money isn’t on the list, he said, after more than $120 million in NBA earnings and massive endorsement deals.
“And I still want to be great,” he added. “That’s what a lot of people overlook. But that feeling doesn’t go anywhere. I still want to go out there and prove to people I can hoop. I know I’ve been through a lot, but again, me going out and setting an example, I think it helps a lot of people.”
Playing Rose off the bench behind Reggie Jackson and even fill-in starter Tim Frazier, Detroit wants to keep the 31-year-old guard healthy and locked into his role. If it holds all season, Rose would have a chance to match what only one other NBA MVP ever has done: Reinventing himself from the league’s best player to its top reserve.
“I know who it is — Bill Walton,” Rose said. The legendary UCLA center and Portland Trail Blazers star won his MVP award in 1978. After being waylaid by chronic foot issues in subsequent seasons, Walton helped Boston off the bench to the 1986 NBA title and was named Sixth Man of the Year.
I still want to go out there and prove to people I can hoop. I know I’ve been through a lot, but again, me going out and setting an example, I think it helps a lot of people.”
If Lou Williams for whatever reason loosens his grip on the SMOY award, Rose could snag it — if he’s fulfilled by coming off the bench all season.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s whatever the team wants,” he said. “Winning takes care of every area. If we win, I could be the second.
“My biggest thing is just trying to push these guys with a certain amount of energy and effort every game. And to teach the young guys, taking on the challenge of being vocal, which will help me. Trying to learn in every area that I can.”
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