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It's now or never for Derrick Rose

The Bulls point guard is on the precipice of the most important season of his career.

Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

There's something about Derrick Rose that enables him to evoke a visceral reaction from anyone who has ever cared deeply about basketball. To some, Rose is the man who beat the worst poverty and violence Chicago has to offer to become a No. 1 draft pick, league MVP and the Bulls' first superstar since Michael Jordan. At the same time, others see him as distant and aloof, the type of player with a penchant for curious quotes and an inability to stay out of his own head.

Neither absolute view is completely accurate. Rose is a complicated dude, and the knee injuries that have caused him to miss 75 percent of his games over the last three years has clouded judgment on both sides. After so many lost seasons of his prime when the Bulls believed they should have been competing for championships, the present debate no longer even feels footed in reality.

At a certain point, Derrick Rose is what he is. One week away from his 27th birthday, the Bulls point guard met the media on Monday to unofficially begin what's likely to be the defining season of the remainder of his career. For better or for worse, this is the year Rose becomes less of a symbol and more of a tangible basketball player again.

"I know I'm great," Rose said on Monday. "Some people don't know I'm great, but that's cool. ... I can't get mad at how they criticize the way I play or the way I used to play. I know I'm great."

Up to this point, the goal for Rose has been simple: just make it through the year. Even as he mercifully accomplished the task last season, he still needed another knee surgery to get there. Now it's less about reaching the finish line and more about how he gets there.


(via Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports)

If this Bulls team has any hope of making it out of the Eastern Conference, it's because Rose can be so much better. That's a nice way of saying he wasn't particularly good last year: he was 25th among point guards in RPM and ninth on his own team in win shares. He was also worst high volume three-point shooter in basketball by making only 28 percent of the 5.3 three-pointers he attempted per game.

Sure, there were flashes. He dropped 30 points in a February win over the Cavs right before he was sidelined with a torn meniscus. He torched Kyle Lowry for 29 points in December, gave John Wall 32 points in January and helped hand the Warriors one of only two home losses all year with 30 points in a game the Bulls played without Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah.

There was also the Game 3 buzzer-beater against Cleveland that seemed like a gift from above, a small offering for all of those years decimated by injury. Rose finished the playoffs averaging 20.3 points and 6.5 assists per game, but his final note still left a sour taste. He was downright passive in the Bulls' Game 6 loss to Cleveland, one that saw Rose get thoroughly out-played by Matthew Dellavedova.

The question facing Rose should no longer focus on whether or not he can regain his MVP form. Right now, the Bulls just need him to play his way back into being an asset. With a glaring hole at backup point guard, the Bulls have no other option but to hope Rose can again become one of the better players at his position.

Rose does not lack faith in himself, and perhaps that's the first ingredient for a bounce back season. The other might be new coach Fred Hoiberg, who comes to the franchise at a time when Rose isn't even the best player on the team anymore.

Tom Thibodeau earned his reputation as basketball's version of a drill sergeant, but Thibs also made a lot of excuses for Rose. He let him jack contested threes even as he rarely made them last season. He talked about Rose's need to attack, but he never seemed to actually coax to him take more efficient shots.

In a lot of ways, it felt like Thibodeau couldn't tell Rose 'no' because of everything Rose did for him. Maybe that's why Hoiberg can be a reprieve. The players have all talked about how excited they are to play with more "freedom" offensively, and certainly a pace-and-space system would seem to gel with Rose's inherent gifts. But there's also the value that comes with another voice and a new way of saying things that may finally get through.

"It's always important to have a great relationship with your point guard," Hoiberg said on Monday. "But it's everybody. You really got to have those relationships so you can have conversations .... sometimes they're tough conversations. But if you have those relationships built, sometimes it's easier for guys to accept things."

What does Derrick Rose need to accept? For one, despite his claims, he was definitely not great last season. He wasn't even objectively good, and average feels charitable. There were reasons for it, sure. With Derrick Rose, there always are. He certainly missed a lot of time. He fought through injuries once again. Thibodeau's offense probably didn't do him any favors, either.

Those excuses, valid as they may be, can only last for so long. We're at the point where Derrick Rose can't just say he's great. He needs to start playing that way. If he does, the Bulls can talk themselves into this potentially being their best chance against LeBron James yet. If it's more of what we saw last year from Rose, you can immediately shut the door on any aspirations of a long playoff run no matter how well everyone else is playing.

Maybe his comments Monday about playing for another big pay day when he hits free agency in 2017 will give him all the motivation he needs. Maybe Hoiberg will finally get him to play to his strengths instead of exposing his weaknesses. Maybe the development of Jimmy Butler takes defensive attention away from him, and the shooting of Nikola Mirotic gives him more space to operate.

It's all possible, and it's easy to convince yourself it can happen. It all comes back to Derrick, though. He's said he's great, now he has to prove it.