Two weeks after Derrick Rose was traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Utah Jazz (and promptly waived thereafter) at the February deadline, the 2011 NBA MVP was spotted in an empty gym at Cleveland State University, lofting soft, one-legged floaters around the rim at what looked like 10 percent effort.
He looked like a child trying to emulate Rose’s patented jump-stop floater that, at full speed in his prime, was like watching a SpaceX booster landing squarely on its launch pad. Except it was the real Rose, seemingly worlds away from another shot at making an NBA roster.
Two weeks later he’s returned to the only coach in the league who would have him. On Thursday morning, Rose reunited with Tom Thibodeau, signing a contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the remainder of the season.
We have some questions.
This is a rhetorical question, although it probably shouldn’t be. We are now six seasons removed from Rose’s last All-Star season, and so much has changed about the player we once anointed as the next great point guard. In the years since, he’s dealt with a litany of injuries all over his body, chipping away at his explosiveness; in 2016, he faced a civil trial for sexual battery, among other charges, for an alleged incident in 2013 (Rose was found not liable for the offenses). The player who was dismissed from his hometown team has since donned Knicks orange-and-blue and Cavs wine-and-gold; that version of Rose is a high-usage nonshooter who can’t space the floor, can’t be relied upon to play defense, and can’t contribute in any positive manner without the ball in his hands.
A cursory look at Rose’s 2016-17 campaign with the Knicks might instill some sort of optimism: He averaged 18 points per game! But what made Rose a force in his earlier days was the amount of attention his freak athleticism demanded of a defense. The Knicks’ version of Rose was just another guy who played as though he had to win his battles alone—and every single bucket he made was a tiresome battle. He was a complete ball-stopper: With Rose on the floor, the Knicks assisted at a rate that would’ve ranked third-worst in the league over a full season; with him off, their assist percentage would’ve been good enough to slide in the top 10.
In Rose, the Wolves ostensibly added a player who is familiar with Thibodeau’s system and another shot-creating option for when games grind to a halt. The problem is that the Wolves, who already have a tendency to stand around and wait for plays to happen for them, will be even more inclined to dig into their vices should Rose find time with Minnesota’s talented young stars.
The Wolves’ game against the Celtics on TNT on Thursday night will be their first game since March 2, which means Thibs has had a full five days to flail and grumble and game-plan. Idle hands are the devil’s playthings. Bringing Rose back into his cold arms is what came out of that weeklong machination. The extended break could have also clarified Jimmy Butler’s injury status and whether the team needed to make an additional move. Evidently it did.
What difference will this make?
It’s hard to see how adding Rose will dramatically improve the team. It’s easier to see how Thibs’ faith in his former star might derail a season that is already in a precarious spot. The Wolves have lost six of their past 10 games. A brutal loss at the hands of the surging Portland Trail Blazers, now currently in the no. 3 spot that Minnesota had strived for all season, exposed the team’s most glaring weakness heading into the playoffs. The Wolves are prone to leaving the corners open and are middle of the road in defending the 3 overall. It doesn’t help that they’re one of the least prolific 3-point-shooting teams, too. The Wolves are competing against math, and they just signed a player who has shot 22.6 percent from 3 over the past two seasons.
In his time as coach-president, Thibodeau has turned the Wolves into a sort of art installation, a forced collision between the glory days of one’s past and the promise of a different future. Exactly one-quarter of the players on the Wolves’ active roster (Rose, Butler, Taj Gibson, and Aaron Brooks) are vestiges of Thibs’s best years in Chicago. Thibs wants to win and he wants to bring Minnesota out of its 13-year malaise, but he wants to do it his way, with his players. It seems a win isn’t a win unless it can also redeem his past.