When Derrick Rose went to the basket late in the Chicago Bulls‘ win in their opening playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers in April 2012, he was one of the NBA’s brightest stars. A year removed from winning MVP, Rose was again the best player on the team that tied for the NBA’s best record.
That all changed when Rose went down with a torn left ACL, one that would sideline him the entire 2012-13 season. Another knee surgery followed, and while Rose was subsequently able to return, he’s never been the same player — or able to stay healthy for entire seasons.
Frustration with those injuries may lead Rose to walk away from the Cleveland Cavaliers, ESPN’s Dave McMenamin and Adrian Wojnarowski reported Friday. As Rose reconsiders his future, it’s worth wondering what might have been had Rose stayed healthy.
What Rose accomplished before the injury
While Rose was an enormous star producing highlights on a nightly basis with his explosive speed and leaping ability, calling him the defending MVP at the time of his injury might overstate how effective he really was when healthy. The selection of Rose over Dwight Howard or LeBron James, controversial at the time, hasn’t aged well. Rose’s candidacy undoubtedly benefited from the contrast with James, immensely unpopular during his first season with the Miami Heat. Rose’s Bulls, built around a homegrown talent, were considered the desirable alternative to the Heat’s big three.
Value statistics suggest Rose was not the best player in the league in 2010-11. He finished fourth in my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric with 16.6, far behind James (21.2) and Howard (20.5). The wins above replacement (WAR) component of ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) was lower on Rose’s performance, putting him ninth in the league with 12.7 WAR.
We should, however, be careful not to overcorrect when it comes to Rose’s value. At worst, we’re talking about one of the 10 best players in the league at age 22. The following season, when Rose missed 27 games due to a variety of minor injuries, he took a step backward. Despite the time he missed, Rose rated worth 7.6 wins above replacement WARP, a pace of 12.8 over a full season.
Development of similar players
So how might Rose’s career have progressed without the injury? My SCHOENE projection system’s similarity scores are ideally suited to answering that question. Here are the 10 players rated most similar to Rose since 1990 within six months of the same age he was during the 2011-12 regular season.
While not all of these players were as highly honored as Rose, every one was an All-Star — as was Rose for three consecutive seasons before his ACL injury. As high-scoring guards this group should give us a good set of comparables to project Rose’s development. A handful of them are still in their primes, meaning we don’t know exactly how their development will go. So let’s take out the four players on this list since 2013-14, leaving us with eight comps for Rose.
As a group, these eight players averaged 14.0 WARP at the same age Rose was before his ACL injury, slightly better than his 2011-12 performance prorated to a full season but similar to what Rose averaged over 2010-11 and 2011-12. That mostly held steady over the next six seasons. The chart plots the value of each individual by age in gray, with the average of all of them in black.
Given these players were so valuable at age 22, it’s surprising they didn’t collectively improve up through age 27, the typical peak for players. Looking at them individually helps explain this. While there are infinite possible career paths, most of the players like Rose went in one of two directions: either they did in fact develop into players as valuable as Rose was perceived to be during his MVP campaign or they peaked early and were on their way out of the league by the same age as Rose is now.
The Hall of Fame path
Of the group similar to Rose, four players continued their development into surefire Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famers: Bryant, Iverson (who’s already enshrined), Wade and Westbrook. It’s probably not coincidental that two of these four players were shooting guards, with superior size helping make them more durable and more capable of contributing after losing some quickness.
Still, it’s Westbrook who is the most fascinating comparison for Rose’s career. Aside from Rose’s injuries during 2011-12, their WARP totals through the first four seasons of their careers were remarkably similar.
At the time, the similarity between their advanced statistics seemed to make the case that Westbrook — not yet considered an MVP candidate — was underrated. Now that it’s Westbrook who has developed into the current reigning MVP and one of the league’s most decorated players, the comparison serves as testament to Rose’s former potential.
The early peak path
To varying degrees, the other four players all saw their greatest success early in their careers. Arenas, like Rose, saw knee injuries lead to his decline. He underwent microfracture knee surgery at age 25 and was never the same thereafter. While Francis never dealt with the same kind of serious knee surgery, tendinitis helped rob him of the athleticism that made him so effective early in his career.
Based on the timetable of the chart, Marbury and Williams don’t seem to belong. They remained more valuable during their age-27 seasons than Iverson, who bounced back thereafter. But that was Marbury’s last great year; he totaled 8.6 WARP the rest of his career before washing out of the NBA (and eventually to China) at age 32. Williams hung on a bit longer, but was no longer an All-Star-caliber player by age 29 and is now out of the league at age 33.
The cautionary examples suggest that continued dominance was not a lock, though even a prime like Marbury and Williams enjoyed probably would have been enough to make Rose a Hall of Famer. As it is, he’s likely to become the first MVP in NBA history not elected to the Hall.
Rose’s ACL tear and subsequent knee injuries prevented him from fulfilling his potential, and prevented us from seeing which path his career would have taken. That’s what was lost when Rose’s career changed dramatically in April 2012.