In January, LeBron James told reporters that the Cavaliers needed a "playmaker" because he had "no time to waste." He wanted to make clear that he’d benefit from having another ball handler to ease the long and winding NBA season, even though he and Kyrie Irving would handle the ball for Cleveland the vast majority of the time. One month after LeBron voiced his concerns, the Cavs signed Deron Williams, the Brendan Fraser of point guards. Williams failed to make an impact in the role Matthew Dellavedova had once excelled in, and while Cleveland earned a repeat trip to the Finals, it lacked the juice to defeat the juggernaut Warriors.
On July 1 the Cavaliers redoubled their efforts to give LeBron playmaking help, signing Jose Calderon to a one-year, $2.3 million veteran minimum deal. Yet Calderon, who will be 36 on opening night, is in the twilight of his career and may not be the difference-maker James desires. So Cleveland now has eyes for Derrick Rose, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Adrian Wojnarowski. Rose, whose 2016–17 season began with legal issues (in October 2016 he was cleared of charges in a civil lawsuit alleging he and two friends sexually assaulted a woman) and ended with a torn meniscus in his left knee, once hoped for a max contract this summer; the Cavs are reportedly offering only $2.1 million, per ESPN.
A Rose-to-Cleveland marriage would be peculiar. Sure, the 28-year-old could help in some ways. There will be moments LeBron and Kyrie aren’t on the floor, so Rose could serve as an energizer in short stretches. But he can’t turbo or leap in the pick-and-roll like he once did, and the flashes of his MVP form have grown increasingly rare. Watching Rose on League Pass, there are moments when you want to slouch back in your couch, look out your window into the dark night, and howl, "Now you’re just somebody that I used to know."
The sad truth is that Rose isn’t the same anymore, and those glimpses of what he was serve only to tug on the heartstrings. One of the most exciting stars in the game has faded. Since returning from a torn ACL in 2013–14, Rose has ranked in the 13th, 31st, 24th, and 48th percentile of scoring efficiency, respectively, per Synergy Sports. Rose is now an inefficient scorer, period. He can score from the midrange with soft floaters and pull-ups, but his at-rim finishing ability has declined since he can no longer elevate the way he once did. And his perimeter scoring is an eyesore.
It’s not like Rose makes up for his offensive inefficiency through facilitating or defensive effort. Rose was a score-first point guard back before that label became cool to have. But players who can’t score with volume or efficiency need to bring something else to the table. Rose doesn’t. It’s like he’s desperately holding onto the player that he once was rather than maximizing who he is now. If there’s such a thing as a point guard midlife crisis, Rose is smack in the middle of it.
Maybe things would change in Cleveland. Rose might accept his fate and commit to playmaking and defense more consistently. But we haven’t seen that in the last four years, and you’re drinking the Kool-Aid if you expect it to change now. Rose is destined for a sixth-man role, but it’d be a surprise if he accepts one. Let’s hope he does, since that’s the type of makeover Rose would need to keep playing basketball into his 30s.
Still, progress in those areas wouldn’t change the fact Rose would be a shaky fit for Cleveland. Even if he has stints when he’s lead ball handler, most of his time would probably come with LeBron and/or Kyrie on the floor. Rose is a space clogger, not a floor spacer. Over the last four seasons, he shot 30 percent on spot-up 3s, per SportVU. Rose practices shooting with a medicine ball and performs like he’s still using one in games. (The nice thing about Calderon is at least he can stroke 3s; over the same time frame, he’s drained 43 percent of his spot-up 3s, per SportVU.)
The problem is that there aren’t many alternatives left on the market. If the Cavs pass on Rose and wait, other acquirable players who pop up would likely be in the breadth of Williams, a vet with one foot already in the NBA retirement home. The Cavaliers don’t have the assets to add a high-impact player unless they keep Kevin Love on the table. Jason Terry still looms in free agency — but does he really make more sense than Rose even though he remains a knockdown spot-up shooter? Calderon already fills that void.
The team-building process doesn’t end in the summer. The Cavaliers have until April to finalize their roster before the playoffs. But if Rose is signed and their tax bill increases from $71.8 million to $83.4 million, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, they would have already invested a lot of money in a flawed roster. When LeBron and Kyrie are both playing more than 40 minutes per game, Rose would be the worst shooter on the floor. Defenses would have someone they could sag off in order to clog the paint, making life harder on Cleveland’s superstars.
The Lakers are also reportedly interested in Rose, trying to entice him with more money and opportunity. That fit would appear to make more sense, as the college-to-pros transition is rarely seamless for point guards, so despite Rose’s declined play, his mere presence could help ease Lonzo Ball’s development while alleviating a lot of the pressure on the rookie. Rose could work alongside Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as a one-year stopgap in Los Angeles as the team sets the table for its real targets — headlined by LeBron — in 2018.
Time is running out for Cleveland. The Cavs’ options are thin, and a final hurrah with King James could rely on squeezing out what’s left of Rose. Joining forces would bring more questions than answers, but for both player and team, a slim chance to return to the heights of the past may prove too much to pass up.