Twenty years from now, a young basketball fan will become infatuated with Russell Westbrook highlights.
They’ll see the 6' 3" guard penetrate with deceptive ease, fly above league-leading shotblockers, and finish like Thor dropping his hammer from the sky. Digging deeper into his legacy, they’ll find out about his multiple regular season MVP awards, the year he averaged a triple-double, and his influence on steering the point guard position away from the floor general model and toward a score-first, ultra-athletic do everything conception of that position.
Twenty years from now, it will be universally appreciated that Westbrook transcended the point guard position. This is how his legacy will be defined.
Our young fan will then turn to his father and ask what it was like to see Westbrook play.
The conversation might continue this way:
Son: How good was Westbrook?
Father: Incredible. One of the best players I’ve ever seen.
Son: Based on his highlights, no one his size seemed to be as athletic as he was during the 2010s.
Father: Yes and no.
Son: He wasn’t the most athletic PG?
Father: In terms of longevity, yes. But there was one guy who was just as, if not more, athletic.
Father: Derrick Rose.
Son: I’ve never heard of him….
Drafted #1 overall by the Chicago Bulls, Rose was considered one of the top point guard prospects in ages. It wasn’t so much that he was more talented than the best PGs taken in the three previous drafts — Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Mike Conley — rather, Rose possessed an array of skills that hadn’t been seen by someone his size.
In 2008–09, after winning the Rookie of the Year award, the wider public got a glimpse of Rose’s greatness during his first postseason game. Facing the defending champion Boston Celtics, Rose dropped 36 points in Boston to lead Chicago to a Game 1 upset. Despite losing the series in 7 games, Rose averaged 20 points per game, 6 assists per game, and 6 rebounds per game against an opponent in Boston that had the league’s second-best defense. Needless to say, Rose announced himself.
It’s crazy to think this now, but only five years ago Rose was considered the future face of the league. It wasn’t a question of whether he had more upside than the late-bloomer Westbrook — that much was inarguable — rather, the most entertaining question was: Who would you pick to start a team, Durant or Rose?
In 2011, at 22 years old, Rose became the youngest player in league history to win the regular season MVP award.
My most vivid memory of his MVP campaign was a February game against the Spurs. It didn’t matter that the Spurs had the league’s best coach or the most experienced core, Rose did whatever he wanted, finishing with 42 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds in a Chicago win.
This was the night that Rose established himself as the MVP favorite. Finishing the season averaging 25 PPG, 7.7 APG, and 4.1 RPG, Rose led Chicago to 62 wins and the #1 seed in the East, despite a borderline mediocre supporting cast — Noah, Boozer, Deng — and despite LeBron having teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a mega-team in South Beach.
Against LeBron’s Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bulls were ousted in five games. Nevertheless, the matchup looked to be the first of many to come, with Rose on the cusp of becoming the rival LeBron had been searching for his whole career.
At the time, it would’ve seemed crazy to suggest that in five years, Rose would be a struggling, mediocre point guard. It was just unthinkable.
But in the lockout season following his MVP year, Rose began to look banged up and overworked. During his MVP season, he was an irrepressible force of nature — when he wanted to get in the paint, he would, and nobody could stop him. But in the year that followed he started to miss stretches of games with various injuries.
Despite a sometimes-hobbled Rose, the Bulls once again finished the season with the best record in the East. They knew they would face Miami, and this time they expected to be ready.
But before the two Eastern titans could meet, Rose injured his left knee during Game 1 of the first round of the playoffs. An MRI later revealed that Rose tore the ACL in his left knee and would miss the rest of the playoffs.
That was the moment. That’s the play that took Rose from being ascendant to starting a long and hard decline. That’s the moment one and the same individual went from being a future hall-of-famer and potentially one of the greatest ever players to a forgotten casualty of the injury plague, the NBA’s version of a one-hit wonder.
After missing all of 2013, all signs were pointing to a major comeback. Despite an emerging threat in the Indiana Pacers, the Bulls were still the biggest long-term challengers to the Heat, and once they got their MVP back, the NBA was going to be put on notice.
Ten games into the 2013–14 season, Rose tore his meniscus (right knee), ending his season once again.
In 2014–2015, after finally regaining some stability, he was ruled out indefinitely in February, generating talk that his career could be over. Amid adversity, Rose came back to play in the postseason for the first time since 2012, leading the Bulls to a Second Round matchup with LeBron’s Cavs.
With the series tied 1–1, Game 3 in Chicago would become Rose’s final triumph on the basketball court. Tied at 96, Rose hit a game-winner to put the Bulls up 2–1 in the series, finishing the game with 30/7/7. For the first time since his pre-ACL tear in 2012, Derrick Rose and Chicago looked on the cusp of something great.
Alas, they couldn’t get past LeBron, as the Cavs won the final three games. Once again, Rose and Chicago were left wondering what could have been.
In 2015-2016, despite playing a full season for the first time in four years, Rose and Chicago hit a wall. Engulfed in a sexual assault case that was a carry over from the preseason, the Bulls experienced internal turmoil en route to missing the playoffs.
Last summer, Rose and his hometown team finally parted ways, with the former MVP signing with the New York Knicks. It…has not gone well.
This season, Rose has become a punch-line — with his ball-hogging habit being viewed as stagnating the growth of the Knicks’ future superstar Kristaps Porzingis.
At 28 years old, in what should be the peak of his career, Rose is nothing more than a medicore guard stripped of all explosiveness and confidence. Watching him now, one sees a player haunted by the promise of his past; the unfulfilled dreams of a once-great burst of athletic brilliance.
What’s already lost in his downfall is the memory of Rose’s transcendent athletic ability. Although he came into the league the same year as Westbrook, we forget that Rose excelled faster, reaching heights — literally and figuratively — unprecedented for the point guard position. He was also a much better decision-maker than Westbrook, who early on struggled mightily in this department.
What’s lamentable is that aside from the lost rivalry with LeBron and the Heat, we lost a decade of battles between Rose and Westbrook, two evenly-sized, unbelievably-explosive point guards who play with complete disregard for their bodies, and who both play every second of every game like it’s Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
Six years after winning the NBA MVP, Rose’s legacy is that of a former superstar whose career was forever hijacked by injury. He exists in the same category as other Hall-of-Fame talents — Penny Hardaway, Grant Hill, and T-Mac — who are haunted by what might have been.
Unlike the other three just mentioned, Rose won an MVP award, and he won it in the LeBron era. As things stand he is the only MVP winner who is likely to miss out on Hall of Fame honors.
Although his recent durability shows the book is not closed on his career, it’s clear he will never regain his status as a top player in the league.
With that said, we’ll always have 2011.