Derrick Rose and the Disappointment of “What Was”

Is it more tragic to see a former star decline or see a player never realize his potential?

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When I was a kid, Mo Vaughn joined the New York Mets. My grade-school Met-fan friends were really excited about Vaughn’s potential, saying he was the Mets’ version of Barry Bonds. (I was around eight years old, so those were probably the first hot takes ever heard in my sports fandom memory.)

I, as a fan of the New York Yankees, didn’t really care. The Yankees signed Jason Giambi! And Raul Mondesi! But my baseball coach, a Mets fan, convinced my teammates and I that Mo Vaughn was going to be great — an absolute steal! He was a former MVP! The perfect compliment to Mike Piazza in the batting order. He was going to bash some homers, fully recovered from his injuries in previous years. Former MVP’s are always great, right?

Mo Vaughn was, by any metric, not good for the Mets. Derrick Rose may have reached Mo Vaughn-level in his year with the Knicks, with many fans asking for the Derrick Rose that was, not the Derrick Rose that is.

On Sunday, the New York Knicks announced that Derrick Rose would miss the remainder of the season due to a torn meniscus. For Rose, it was the fourth knee injury of his career. Everyone is aware of his rise and fall by now. The Rose injury capped off one of the strangest seasons of New York Knicks basketball in recent memory. Insert your popcorn.gif of choice here when thinking about Phil Jackson, James Dolan, and the Knicks’ season.

On the surface, Rose’s season was solid. He averaged 18.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game. He shot 47% from the field, which was his best mark since his sophomore season. He scored over 20 points in 23 games. He knifed his way to the basket, sliced into the lane, and hung in midair like it was 2011, when Tyler, the Creator was the up and coming rapper to keep an eye on. Check out this 30-point “MVP mode” performance against the Boston Celtics…

But like Tyler, Rose just couldn’t create anymore (that was so bad, I’m really sorry.) The Knicks were 6–17 when Rose scored over 20 points. He may not have been the perfect triangle point guard — but honestly, nobody should be playing in that system in 2017. Although his offensive numbers were promising, Rose was ranked 82nd out of 89-point guards in the NBA in defensive real plus minus, per ESPN. Watch him look like a statue here against the Nets…

There were games where he simply didn’t care defensively. Rose received (warranted) slack for calling the Knicks a “Super Team” in the preseason. The Knicks were hardly super, and were far from a team sometimes, looking completely disjointed at their worst. And of course, the Knicks’ off court dealings received more attention than some of their games, including Rose disappearing for a day mid-season, and his preseason sexual assault trial.

Derrick Rose WAS a great player. He still has the potential to be a good player, but that has yet to be seen. His numbers may look great, but his play may sometimes be a detriment to the team.

What was?

Sports stories are often written asking the question “What If?” ESPN can produce an entire year of 30 for 30 documentaries trying to answer the “What Ifs” in sports. Actually, their opening monologue usually starts with “What If I told you?” Here are some of my biggest sports “What Ifs”, right off the top of the dome…

What if Greg Oden never got injured?

What if the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Finals in 2016?

What if the Mets never took out Matt Harvey in the World Series?

What if anybody but Roger Goodell was the Commissioner of the NFL?

Those questions (and many others) will be discussed in bars, barbershops, click-bait articles, and YouTube for years to come. But I think the more interesting sports discussion is “What Was.”

Whenever a former star changes teams or returns from injury, fanbases get excited — almost to the point of unrealistic expectations. Nets fans lived through that when Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce joined the team in 2013. People (read: me) expected Tracy McGrady to go full 2003 and dominate with the San Antonio Spurs in his half season with the team. Most Bulls fans, after not seeing Rose for over a season, were fully expecting Derrick Rose to be a top-10 player after his injuries.

The “what was” may be even more disappointing than reflecting on a “what if.” With the former, there’s evidence of greatness. Rose was a former MVP that was seemingly healthy for the first time in a while. He was changing scenery, leaving a franchise undergoing major changes. Rose was finally away from the distractions of home. He was joining a Knicks team with Carmelo Anthony, a former MVP-candidate in his own right. Knicks fans could watch highlights of Rose and salivate over his potential. With a player like Greg Oden, or a 2016–2017 version of Russell Westbrook + KD — there’s nothing but speculation.

It’s fun to think of a “what if.” For fanbases, speculating and hoping to see a “what was” may only lead to disappointment. The Derrick Rose saga shows that. Rose, by all means, was a great player. The expectations were almost undeservedly high going into his first (and likely only) season with the Knicks. Some Knicks fans expected an 80% version of Derrick Rose, the MVP that was. What they saw was a player broken by injuries, and sometimes unable to come to grips with the decline in his star play.

Mo Vaughn, just like Derrick Rose, played in blue and orange years removed from an MVP win. Vaughn did not make the Baseball Hall of Fame, despite his MVP credentials. Rose, if he plays at this current level, is unlikely to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, a basketball first. For Rose, the hope for “What Was” may have doomed his Knicks tenure from the start. Rose may not be a Hall of Famer, but the “former MVP” cloud will follow him wherever he goes, for better or for worse.