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What if Derrick Rose had had an injury-free career

Injuries and Derrick Rose have become synonymous but what would’ve his career looked like if he’d managed to stay healthy?

Peter Rogers Illustrations

Holding onto his knee, holding onto his knee and down.

I don’t think I will ever forget the words Marv Albert came up with at the end of April 2012. Those belonged to the narration of a basketball match in which the Chicago Bulls were facing the Philadelphia 76ers at home. The quarter was the fourth, and there were under two minutes left to play. The game’s outcome was pretty much determined by then, with the Bulls leading by 12, 99-87. There was no real threat of losing the game, and with 14 seconds left on the possession-clock Bulls’ point guard Derrick Rose used a screen from Joakim Noah near mid-court to launch a run toward the basket. He reached the free-throw line, made a quick jump forward holding the ball with his two hands trying to fool big-man Spencer Hawes inside the paint, and upon landing back on the floor the worst possible of nightmares became a reality.

Rose set both feet on the ground but instantly felt it. Marv Albert described it as best as he could while Rose dropped himself to the ground in grimacing pain, clearly knowing something wrong had happened at the knee’s height on his left leg. We didn’t know at that moment, but just a few hours later we would all be lamenting Rose’s ACL. Not only had we lost Rose for the 2012 postseason, but we had also lost him until he made his comeback more than a year later on Oct. 29 2013 against Miami. That was a year-and-a-half absence from basketball courts, a lengthy recovery, and also one that would help him stay active for under a month. On Nov. 22 that same year, in his 10th game back, Rose re-injured himself this time suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee. Out for the season. Again.

It is not that I am a Bulls fan, but I don’t think I will ever get over the fact that I—and every single NBA and basketball fan for that matter—was stolen a potentially full injury-free career from Derrick Rose. It sucks, but Rose was never the same we had come to know since he entered the league in the fall of 2008 and played until that 2012 playoff game, winning both Rookie of the Year (2009) and MVP (2011) awards in that span. Rose was an absolute freak, he was dominating the league by just his fourth season as a pro, and those Bulls were built to contend for many years (they reached the ECF in 2011, falling 1-4 to Miami). What if Rose hadn’t had the bad luck of falling injured in 2012? What if Rose’s body was made of steel instead of glass? I would have loved to saw that universe unfold, and that is why I simulated it.

The Setup

This scenario comes with a fairly simple setup. We only have to hit the rewind button and set ourselves at the start of the shortened 2011-12 season. The only change I made was setting Derrick Rose to have a high “endurance” rating, which means he would be less prone to injuries—if at all. As you know, I’m using the free-to-play BasketballGM to simulate these alternate universes I’m writing about, and the game doesn’t know a thing about the lockout happening at the start of that campaign. That is not a problem, though, and the only change is that the first year would have a full 82-game schedule instead of a shorter one.

The 2012 Bulls only did one move that season—signing Richard Hamilto prior to the first game of the year—so the situation is perfect as there would be no mid-season transactions lost to the simulation. Also, these 2012 Bulls were absolutely on the rise. The Baby Bulls of the early aughts were hoped to reach the sky, but rather fell to the abyss in infamous fashion. This time, though, things looked quite different. Chicago had drafted Joakim Noah in 2007, Rose in 2008, Taj Gibson in 2009, and Jimmy Butler in 2011. To those young guys they added important core pieces in Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng, and Kyle Korver. The roster was young and had all of the upside, and the results spoke for it: 41-41 in 2009 and 2010, and 62-20 in 2011 getting to the ECF and losing 1-4 to the Heatless while featuring a shiny MVP in Derrick Rose after he beat Dwight Howard to the award.

While Chicago would go on to finish with a 50-16 record in 2012, that had not happened yet in this simulation but it serves as a good point of reference for what to expect of this team going into this alternate universe. This is the team up for the challenge at the start of this simulation.

You don’t need to be a retrospect-expert to know a bunch of those names. Rose was the clear leader of the team, and reigning MVP. Deng, Noah, and Brewer/Boozer followed him in the pecking order with a few nice bench players in C.J. Watson, Kyle Korver, Taj Gibson, and the up-and-coming Jimmy Butler.

It was all set up for a deep playoff run, and Rose had no soft body-parts to worry about.

2012 to 2014: Young Core, Constant Letdowns

I’m going straight to the point: these young Bulls were good, but not entirely great. The 2012 version of this Chicago team was the best in the three years following Rose’s MVP campaign in 2011. The Bulls made it to the ECF again after falling to Miami the year before, this time demolishing the Heat 4-0—Dwyane Wade missed pretty much all season due to injuries—but falling to a surprisingly great Bucks in the ECF in a tight 4-3 resulting series.

The Bucks would go on to win the championship beating San Antonio, but one has to wonder what could have been had Chicago ousted Milwaukee in the conference finals. The Spurs didn’t look ready to spot those Bucks at all, and Chicago was as strong—if not more—than the Brandon Jennings-led team that conquered the chip. That first ring for Rose—and the first one after the monstrous Mike years—could have been right there for the taking.

Chicago regressed the following season going from 53 wins to 42 in 2013, although they made the playoffs. With almost no additions to the team—they signed Wilson Chandler, but that was pretty much it—and Jimmy Butler not panning as he started to do in our world, some doubts started to float about what the Bulls could actually achieve while led by DRose. Another 4-3 exit at the hands of Milwaukee—this time in the first round—ended the season. One year later Chicago won three more games (45-37 on the season) and reached the second round but that was it; Philly swept the Bulls 4-0 and went on to get the Larry OB after beating Golden State 4-0 in the Finals even with Steph Curry’s season for the ages (27.7 PER, 18-5-11 average line). No wonder, though, considering Philly featured a quartet of 20+ PER players in Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young, Lou Williams, and eventual-HOFer Andre Iguodala along with free-agent addition Nene.

I have not forgotten about Rose, though, and if his story is what concerns you, then peep at his numbers: DR played 66, 77, and 78 games in the 2012-14 span, averaged 28 PPG and 11 APG, and led the league multiple times in scoring and assisting while making the All-Star every year. Those healthy knees, man...

2015 to 2018: John Wall Joins The Party, Chicago Flies High

A healthy Derrick Rose was always going to be nice. A healthy Derrick Rose playing next to a —why not say it—healthy John Wall during both guards’ primes would have been the stuff of dreams. And that is precisely what Chicago bet on in the summer of 2015 when they signed Wall to a four-year deal to feature the best backcourt in the whole NBA.

The disappointing runs of the early 2010s seemed to had happened decades earlier as the Bulls went on to complete a East-best 61-21 2015 season under the Wall-Rose partnership only bested by OKC’s 64-18 regular-season mark in the western conference. Those Backcourt-Bulls beat Brooklyn 4-3 in the first round—too bad for FA-signee Kawhi Leonard—and swept Cleveland in the second—does anybody know how the impossible team of Thaddeus Young, Kevin Durant, Dame Lillard, Trey Burk, and Sebastian Telfair! wasn’t able to even score itself a single win?—to face Detroit in the ECF. And again, Chicago hit a wall shaped as a would-be champion just one round later. The Pistons beat the Bulls 4-1 in the ECF, reached the Finals, and led by Gordon Hayward and third-year former no. 1 pick Anthony Davis snatched the NBA championship from Minny’s paws—four years into the sim, the Wolves were still running the Love-Rubio duo only with the substantial addition of OJ Mayo to the core.

If the 2015 season was good but ultimately disappointing, the best was yet to come. In back-to-back seasons the Bulls would go on to make the Finals in 2016 and 2017 led by the pair of Rose and Wall. Danny Green and Evan Fournier (both signed back in 2015) finally exploded and became important pieces in Chicago’s puzzle. That foursome was everything Chicago needed to reach those couple of Finals in consecutive seasons...

...and lose both of them.

The 2016 campaign—spoilers coming—marked the closest point to a championship the Bulls would be during the Rose era. That team didn’t post the best regular-season record ever under Rose’s guidance, but it was just one game away from hanging a banner. The Thunder prevented it. Russell Westbrook—Senior, that is, as his son Russy Jr. would enter the league in 2030—was the leading force of a team that finished with only one fewer win than the 2016 Bulls. James Harden, happy with his heavier role in the franchise after Durant’s exit in 2014—to join the Cavs—, was more than a good second-fiddle to help lift OKC to the championship. And OKC celebrated its first—and still lone—title since moving from Seattle.

In 2017 were a little bit more frustrating for the Bulls and, most of all, Derrick Rose. The point guard hit his absolute peak: 30.6 PER, a 27-6-11-2 average line on the year, the second MVP award of his career, another first-team All-NBA, a third All-Defensive team, another All-Star MVP, and tons of “lesser” stuff such as a 45-point triple-double against the Pacers. After reaching the Finals for the second time in a row and facing a middling (to a certain extent) Rockets team that had fought his way there, Chicago dropped the ball hard being swept by Houston. Kawhi Leonard finally got his chip while paired with an explosive Goran Dragic and a towering Boban Marjanovic, the no. 19 pick in the 2015 draft.

Things didn’t get much worse in 2018. Rose kept playing everything and then some—to this point and since 2012, in seven seasons, Rose had just missed 36 games of a potential 574—while averaging points and dimes double-double seasons every single year except in 2018—when his assists dropped just a bit to 9.8 per, something he would do from 2012 to 2023 uninterruptedly only with that year’s blip. Chicago had turned into an all-free-agent team by 2018 with only a bunch of middling homegrown-drafted talents other than Rose (Sam Dekker, Maxi Kleber, Andrew Harrison,...) all playing fewer than 18 MPG. No substantial additions were made to the 2017 roster and Orlando slashed Chicago’s dream in the second round of the playoffs, beating them 4-3. Again, the Magic went on to become champions, and one way or another Chicago kept finding ways to meet the eventual NBA champion every single season they reached the postseason. Those Magic were no joke, though. Orlando featured the two best players from both the draft and free agency of 2015: Karl-Anthony Towns (no. 1 pick) and Damian Lillard (signed from Cleveland). They had also signed Kyrie Irving—a would-be HOFer himself—in 2014 too.

2019 to 2021: Rebuild Phase

Frustrated by the shortcomings, John Wall decided to leave Chicago once for all and signed with Phoenix. Derrick Rose would keep carrying the Bulls as far as his body would allow him to, though that wasn’t too far. The Bulls stringed three years in which they didn’t reach more than 38 wins and missed the playoffs entirely in the 2019-21 span.

Chicago used its lottery picks in Luka Samanic (2019 no. 12), Ricardo Riley (2020 no. 7), and Murphy Owes (2021 no. 4), none of whom would re-sign with the team past their rookie contracts. Early-aughts Baby Bulls vibes again, anyone?

Rose was always there for the Bulls. He logged 62, 78, 81, and a full-season 82 starts in those four seasons, barely missing games and still averaging dub-dubs steadily.

2022 to 2028: Closing Out A Historic, Ring-less Career

It is not of great interest to delve too deep into the 2020s in terms of concrete players. By the time we hit 2020 in the simulation, the guys leading the league in minutes were Jalen Brunson, Rose, Elfrid Payton, Bradley Beal, John Wall, and Anthony Davis. You know all of them. Fast-forward to 2028, the year Rose finally retired, and the best players are now game-generated in some cases and now-old real-life guys like Sekou Doumbouya, De’Angelo Russell, or Deandre Ayton but no many more.

Chicago never reached the heights of the mid-10s in this final set of runs under Rose’s guidance. They made it to the second round a couple of times, sure, but no further than there for much that they tried. The Bulls signed a still-good Kyrie Irving in 2023, had good players in MarShon Brooks and Isaiah Hartenstein contributing to those teams, but ultimately couldn’t do a lot. The 20s didn’t have a clear team dominating the league, truth be told, but Chicago always found a way to get out of the postseason early.

The year 2028 confirmed what everybody had already installed in their minds: Rose would be a Hall of Famer, would enter the story books as a life-long member of the Bulls, would finish his career leading the franchise in games by a mile over Michael Jordan... and would retire without a single ring in his fingers.

During the 17 seasons that Rose and the simulation lasted (2012-2028), Chicago went on to make the postseason 12 times and finished with a 757-637 regular-season record (.543). Up to 15 players played more than 300 games for the Bulls in that span, and Rose became the ultimate Chicago Bull in that time. Finishing his playing days without a single chip to his name would have always put him behind Jordan, of course, but his career-long numbers and total stats would have ranked him as the no. 2 Bull ever without a single doubt in mind. Rose only fell short of Wall’s PER as a Bull by fewer than three points, but his 227 EWA was only bested in this alternate universe by Elfrid Payton’s 230.8 (still active). Of those retired or nearing that point, only Anthony Davis (203.6) and Devin Booker (216.2) are close to Rose and broke the 200-EWA barrier. Going by raw stats, Rose retired leading the 2012-2018 span in assists (12,588), minutes played (41,915), and points (27,657).

I have to acknowledge that while I started to sim years and years of basketball I didn’t expect Rose to hit the 1,200-game mark, to play into his 40s, or to accomplish as many individual accolades as he did in this run. Not even close. The three first seasons of Derrick Rose’s career were actually magnificent. Seriously. He wasn’t a lock to become the ROY-recipient entering the league but odds were with him. He wasn’t a lock to get that 2011 MVP award—Dwight wants to have a word—but he was a pretty legit choice.

We all were robbed of a much better and productive version of Rose other than the one we have and are witnessing these days. That is not to say I’m not happy with real-life Derrick Rose’s career. There aren’t many players out there that have suffered as Rose has. This kid has gone through hell countless times, yet he has always come back from it. A 31-year-old now, Rose’s playing days are still pretty much in the air in terms of where and when they’ll end. DR has played for five franchises already, and Detroit has been his last stop. Motown has also been the place Rose has chosen to come back to his best version since his heyday: in 50 games this season (15 starts) Rose has a 21.1 PER unheard of next to his name since the 2011-12 days.

The role has changed and his skills have adapted to his body’s fragility, but the kid that enamored me is still out there in NBA basketball courts. And that, to me, is more than enough.

Other Quick Bits:

  • Up to 13 teams won a championship in the 17 simulated seasons with no dynasty holding onto it for extended periods of time. Three franchises (Detroit, Los Angeles Lakers, and Orlando) were the only ones to repeat.
  • The Kings were the worst seed (6th) to become a champion in this alternate universe, snatching the title from no. 1 Toronto in 2025.
  • A total of 10 different players won the MVP award in the 2012-2028 span with both Sekou Doumbouya and LeBron James leading the ranks having three trophies each.
  • Kawhi Leonard absolutely dominated the Defensive Player of the Year award getting it four times in a row while playing for two teams (Brooklyn and Houston). LeBron had won it twice prior to Leonard’s run.
  • Rookies of the Year from 2012 to 2019: Kawhi, Dame, Ryan Kelly (!), Jordan Clarkson, KAT, Tyler Ulis (!), Markkanen, Luka, and Cam Reddish.
  • Players with sons in the league: Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Royal Ivey, Kenyon Martin. Odom retired in 2013 and has since seen three (!!!) sons—Daniel, LeBryan, and Lamar Jr.—make it to the NBA.
  • Both Mike Scott and Tony Wroten share the record for most-franchises-played-for with six. Former Bull Jimmy Butler played in five cities before retiring in 2019. He never averaged more than 4.5 PPG and 2.7 RPG.
  • The late Reggie Campbell lost his life in 2026 after hitting his head on the rim while practicing for the dunk contest. He was 20 years old at that time and was in his rookie season with the Bucks after Milwaukee drafted him with the 14th picks just months earlier.
  • Hall of Fame Inductees