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If Sixth Man of the Year finalist Derrick Rose secures that award at some point in his career, he’d join Bill Walton and James Harden as the only players in history to win that and the game’s loftiest individual honor.
Just over 10 years ago, on May 3, 2011, Rose was named the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, making him the youngest in history to earn the award.
He averaged 25.0 points, 7.7 assists and 1.6 threes per game for the 62-win Chicago Bulls, posted an above-average true shooting percentage and trailed only LeBron James in wins over replacement player.
For a 22-year-old, hitting that level that early almost certainly meant he was destined for more. He was on a super-duper-star, Hall of Fame-type trajectory. Barring injuries, it was safe to assume he’d get even better. He could improve on defense. His jumper could definitely use some work.
Rose himself understood there was more to do.
“Derrick has the drive, the stop-and-pop, the finger roll, and our favorite, the twisting-curving-winding sprint to the lane that manages to freeze defenders, not break his spine, and drop home the lay-in,” Will Leitch wrote for GQ. “The craziest part? He still feels like he has training wheels on. ‘Ain’t done nothin’ yet,’ he says. ‘The best is coming.'”
Then, about five months after that quote graced the pages of GQ, Rose’s injury-plagued 2011-12, when he appeared in 39 of 66 games during the lockout-shortened season, ended with a torn ACL.
“It’s tough,” Chicago forward Carlos Boozer told reporters of the injury during the 2012 playoffs. “It seems like he just can’t catch a break. … I just feel for him, man. He really can’t catch a break this season.”
Even with all of Rose’s absences that year, Chicago led the league in SRS (a measure that combines point differential and strength of schedule). But despite prevailing in Game 1, the Bulls dropped that first-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers in six games. And they haven’t been legitimate contenders since.
Including Chicago, Rose has played for five organizations since that ACL tear. His injury timeline looks like something out of a medical school case study.
From 2012-13 to 2017-18, Rose played in 216 games (36 per season) and totaled 1.1 wins over replacement player, a mark that was tied for 359th in the league over that span. He shot 43.1 percent from the field and 28.0 percent from three. And the most common talking point seemed to be: “Will Derrick Rose be the first MVP to miss out on the Hall of Fame?”
During this time, a woman accused Rose and two friends of raping her after breaking into her apartment in 2013. Rose admitted to not knowing the meaning of “consent.” Rose was found not guilty shortly before the 2016-17 season, his first as a New York Knick, and then had a 16-game spell with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2017-18 season.
In February 2018, the Utah Jazz acquired Rose from the Cleveland Cavaliers. Jae Crowder was included in the deal. The forward stuck around with the Jazz for a couple of seasons. Rose, on the other hand, was almost immediately released.
He was nothing more than trade fodder. And when NBA players hit that point, the end of the run typically isn’t far behind.
But Rose had someone who didn’t forget him. Tom Thibodeau was the coach of those early 2010s Bulls teams. And when the Jazz cut Rose, Thibodeau was heading up the Minnesota Timberwolves, who signed the 2011 MVP a month later.
He didn’t do much for the Wolves that regular season, but Rose averaged 14.2 points in 23.8 minutes per game in the playoffs. It was enough to earn him a contract for the 2018-19 campaign, when he officially started to approach his previous levels of performance.
That season, Rose averaged 18.0 points and shot 37.0 percent from three, largely as a reserve in Minnesota. He finished sixth in Sixth Man of the Year voting. And he dropped 50 on the team that cut him the season before.
Rose’s production has been steady ever since. On a per-possession level, he’s been within shouting distance of his MVP form:
- 2018-19 through 2020-21: 23.6 points, 6.5 assists, 1.4 threes per 75 possessions, minus-1.1 relative true shooting percentage, plus-0.6 net rating (plus-3.9 swing)
- 2010-11: 26.7 points, 8.2 assists, 1.7 threes per 75 possessions, plus-0.9 relative true shooting percentage, plus-8.8 net rating (plus-2.8 swing)
Rose isn’t quite where he was in 2010-11, but getting back to this level is remarkable. Injuries have robbed us of a lot of would-be greats. Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and Jay Williams are a few who come to mind.
Rose very well might’ve been a member of that group, but his play over the last few years puts him in a different crowd: Those who came much of the way back after career-altering injuries.
Rose joins the tradition of Grant Hill and Bill Walton. All three would’ve been able to do more without the injuries, and the work they put in to overcome them was perhaps greater than everything they did to get in the league in the first place.
And now, like Walton, Rose has a chance for formal recognition of his efforts.
Reunited once again with Thibodeau, Rose has had an immensely impactful season coming off the bench for the New York Knicks. When he plays with All-NBA candidate Julius Randle, the team is plus-8.1 points per 100 possessions (91st percentile).
And his per-possession production beat that of Sixth Man of the Year betting favorite Jordan Clarkson in a blind poll.
Those numbers certainly deserve context. Clarkson played 18 more games than Rose, and the Jazz guard was backing up one of the best starting fives in the league. Rose came in for a point guard in Elfrid Payton who wasn’t close to his level this season. Hence, the massive gap in net rating swing (the difference between a team’s net points per 100 possessions when a given player is on or off the floor).
The point is that Rose’s raw production is right there with Clarkson’s. And his ability to ignite New York’s offense will be sorely needed in the first round against the offensively talented Atlanta Hawks.
The Knicks earned fourth place and home-court advantage thanks in large part to grit and defense, but they’ll need some hot stretches on the other end to keep pace with Trae Young, Clint Capela, John Collins and the rest of the Hawks attack.
The series between the two tips off Sunday at 7 p.m. ET.
Whether Rose leads New York to a first-round win or pulls off an upset in the Sixth Man of the Year race, this chapter of his career presents an on-court story few have penned. And he likely has a few more years to try to join Walton and Harden as the only players in league history to win both the MVP and Sixth Man of the Year honors.
The Hall of Fame might still be a long shot (Basketball Reference puts him at an 11.9 percent chance), but Rose has certainly made the talking point stale.
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