October 18, 2018
At his best, Rose's athleticism masked his flaws. But now, they are being exposed.

When Derrick Rose stole our collective heart on his way to a seemingly out-of-nowhere Most Valuable Player award in 2010-11, he was an individual spectacle to behold. With burst and athleticism rarely seen at his level in the league and his most efficient jump-shooting season yet, Rose quickly ascended to one of the NBA’s premier individual offensive talents.

He could create his own shot versus absolutely anyone, and get to the rim with ease plus finish efficiently. He had even used his newfound pull on defenses to get his teammates more involved, assisting on nearly a 10% higher rate of Chicago baskets while on the court than he had in his previous season – a figure that even rose above 40% as he began defending his crown the following year, the seventh-best mark in the league among qualified players. Surrounded by an elite defensive squad under the premier defensive coach, and with a team and a city ready to hand him the keys to everything, this was a player only scratching the surface of his potential ceiling.

What happened next is no great secret, and qualifies as the dictionary definition of “worst-case scenario.” Rose played just 49 of a possible 246 regular season games for the Bulls over the three seasons following his MVP, a sobering reminder that the human body has limits to which it can be pushed, even for historically gifted athletes.

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From a pure basketball standpoint, though, perhaps the worst part of a thoroughly depressing narrative is what’s going on so far this season. First, of course, is continued health issues – Rose has avoided another dreaded season-long injury thus far, but has missed 11 games already with a variety of smaller maladies. Now in his fourth consecutive year dealing with these problems, it’s more than fair to wonder whether “100% healthy Derrick Rose” is even an attainable state anymore.

To make matters worse, his play when he has been able to stay on the court this year has been uneven at best, and is exposing some of the warts that his once-world-class athletic skills had done a fine job covering up.

It starts with his own ability to generate individual offense, the foundation for his previous dominance. Pre-injury Rose was a whirling dervish of speed and power, capable of bending and even breaking entire five-man defensive units completely on his own. His athletic skill was frightening enough and present from the start, but when he began to refine both his jump-shooting and his effectiveness around the hoop, his game went through the roof. It’s no surprise at all that as his shooting efficiency rose across the board, so did his abilities as a distributor – defenses simply had to throw more bodies in his way to even conceive of slowing him down, and his teammates reaped the benefits.

Fast forward to post-injury, though, and this foundational talent has mostly deserted him. Whether it’s lingering effects from multiple surgeries, conditioning, rust, or some combination of these, Rose just can’t create like he once could so far upon his return. He’s getting to the rim far less often, with about a third fewer attempts within five feet of the hoop as his MVP season. His efficiency finishing once he does get there is suspect, also – of 61 guards with at least 100 tries from this range, his 54.3% figure places him just 40th. His free-throw rate has plummeted, as well, as he’s no longer explosive enough to catch guys off-balance near the rim.

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Perhaps most comprehensively damning here are his SportVU numbers, which show that Derrick drives to the hoop seven times per game this year, or barely a top-30 figure in the league. The Bulls generate 9.1 points a night as a result of these drives, good for 21st. These aren’t bad numbers for your average guard, and it’s impossible to know exactly how far they differ from his peak years since the data wasn’t available publicly. But it’s very easy to assume that he was among the league’s true elite in these sorts of categories, and being just above average instead has exposed shortcomings elsewhere.

His jump-shooting is one of these, though why it’s fallen off so badly is tough to separate from his time away from the game. Whatever the case, it’s bad – Rose shot 43.7% and 39.9%, respectively, from the 10-16 foot and 16+ foot midrange areas in his MVP year, per basketball-reference.com, figures that have plummeted to 30.4% and 33.3% this year. His form routinely looks almost unspeakably terrible:

Rose was never a knockdown three-point shooter, but has upped his reliance on shots from deep to by far his highest rate in his career while shooting his lowest percentage (31.3%) since his second year, one where he attempted them at roughly one eighth the per-minute rate he is now. Of 122 qualified guards shooting open jumpers (no defender within four feet) from at least 10 feet away from the hoop, his 35.9% figure, per NBASavant, ranks 82nd – but he’s attempted the 24th-most of this same group, a particularly unflattering discrepancy. No matter the (fully understandable) reason behind it, this simply isn’t a good jump-shooter, especially compared with the frequency at which he continues to jack them up.

And without these primary skills fully in tune, the secondary parts of his game have begun to suffer in kind. The game has tightened up for him. Windows that were once a foot or two larger have shrunk as he’s unable to generate the same sort of separation. His turnover numbers have increased markedly both per minute and as a percentage of his overall possessions, as he isn’t capable of the same athletic feats to get him out of trouble, something he relied on heavily as always something of a risky player. He finds himself in the air without a plan way too often, and can’t slither his way out of it as easily:

His assists are also way down from his peak, and it’s not hard to see why. Even at his very best, Rose was never a spatial savant like some of his peers, picking out impossible passing lanes no one else could see. He manufactured points for his teammates as a trickle-down effect from his own ridiculous scoring talents, and as those have waned, so has his ability to facilitate. Simple assist opportunities that would once have presented themselves as defenders shaded from their guys to impede yet another Rose attack have been replaced by guys staying home and throwing arms in his passing lanes.

It’s to the point now where it appears to be in his head, and Rose will spend large chunks of games where it doesn’t even appear he’s aware of his teammates or their locations on the floor. This was never more apparent than Tuesday’s eventual win in Golden State, where this “new Rose” dichotomy was fully on display as he jacked up an unreal (and inefficient) 33 shots en route to 30 points, but had a remarkable 11 turnovers before finally notching his first assist on what was the final relevant play of the game. His tunnel vision was alarming at points; look at the openness of various Bulls teammates in the moments before Rose either turned the ball over or took a silly, low-percentage shot:

Derrick Rose Spacing

Derrick Rose Spacing

Derrick Rose Spacing

As sad and unfortunate as his injuries were, the resulting fallout has shown us a player who, when robbed of his physical advantage over his peers, simply hasn’t adjusted very well. He was never a strong defensive player, and certainly doesn’t have that to fall back on now. This isn’t to condemn him as some awful person or subpar worker by any means – it’s possible no elite level player has ever lost so much of their apparent physical profile in so short a time as Rose, particularly smack dab in the middle of their prime. It wouldn’t be easy for anyone to master a certain style of play and all the advantages that come with it, only to be forced by an uncooperative body to revise things on the fly after missing what basically amounts to two and a half full seasons in his mid-20s. His sample also remains small enough that a turnaround is still possible, though to the naked eye it appears the drop-off has been very real.

He simply has to adjust, or risk never returning to anything close to his previous self. He has limited career time before age begins to become a factor, and given his unique circumstances, he’s already reached the point where he has to tweak his game like an aging veteran to keep up with his deteriorating body. Athleticism cannot mask the significant limitations in his skill set any more. The clock hasn’t fully run out on Derrick Rose as an elite NBA player, but it’s ticking loudly.

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Ben Dowsett

Ben Dowsett is an in-depth analyst and lover of all sports based in Salt Lake City. He can also be found at Salt City Hoops (Utah Jazz TrueHoop affiliate) as well as Hardwood Paroxysm and Nylon Calculus. Follow him on Twitter: @Ben_Dowsett

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