For a Cavaliers team in desperate need of backup point guard help, a flyer on former MVP Derrick Rose made a degree of sense. He was available on a minimum deal, and the team had failed to find anybody consistently capable of filling the role during the 2017 season, as Deron Williams famously flamed out in the Finals.
It wasn’t a slam dunk, of course. Rose’s play had atrophied quite a bit from his MVP form as a series of injuries robbed him of much of his trademark athleticism, and the rest of his game never really grew to match it. Rose was a terrible defender for years and his jump shot remains abominable. Unlike a fellow non-shooter in Dwyane Wade, Rose never learned to play off-ball by becoming a devastating cutter.
It didn’t exactly go well. Rose, who touted that the NBA made him into a score-first guard despite above-average instincts as a passer, had his assist rate crater from his career 30.6 percent to a hilariously low 10.3 percent, per basketball reference.
He was still able to get to the rim at a solid enough rate, and shot 47 percent from the field, but he provided literally zero spacing and he didn’t draw free throws at a high enough rate to justify his lack of spacing.
The lineup data shows Rose’s limitations early in his Cavaliers run. From the start of the season to the time Rose played his most recent game with the Cavs, the team was outscored by 12.6 points per 100 possessions in Rose’s 188 minutes. When you consider that 169 of those minutes featured LeBron James, that is absolutely terrifying.
In fact, Rose’s impact on James’ minutes was truly staggering. James had a -10.9 net rating when sharing the floor with Rose, per nba.com/stats. Without him? +6.2. The ability to ruin LeBron James, a plus-minus king, is quite an accomplishment (Before you yell at me: I’m just kidding.)
The problem, in its own way, worked itself out. Rose hurt his ankle after being landed on by Greg Monroe and Rose left the lineup after a short five-game stint where his ankle just never got right. Shortly after, Rose left the team altogether to ponder his future in basketball.
Then, all of the sudden, Cavaliers reeled off a franchise record-tying 13-game win streak. Dwyane Wade moved to the bench and became a sixth man extraordinaire as the Cavaliers backup point guard, and Jose Calderon was unearthed to become the Keith Bogans special to absorb spot minutes alongside the starters.
Now, correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, and it’s not one hundred percent fair to blame Rose for everything like some have on Twitter. Two of Rose’s games came starting alongside Wade in a lineup alignment that would have been disastrous in the best of conditions. He also consistently found himself in lineups that featured a struggling J.R. Smith and Jae Crowder early in the year.
With samples as small as Rose’s 188 minutes, there’s an insane amount of noise. The Cavs didn’t shoot well from three early this year while opponents were shooting the lights out as all the new pieces came together.
Rose is dealing with a bone spur and his ankle hasn’t entirely healed up, but he has rejoined the team finally, and it looks like he’ll eventually be a part of the active roster once more. Unfortunately for the former MVP, the Cavaliers shouldn’t make room for him in their rotation when he eventually returns.
In an ideal world for Rose, once he returns, he would do the thing he was signed to do: be a spark plug at the backup point guard and provide volume scoring and shooting against weak bench units. That’s a role that could conceivably work. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers aren’t in a position to be able to offer that luxury.
Isaiah Thomas is returning soon and should be quickly absorbing 30 minutes per game, and Dwyane Wade is firmly entrenched as the backup point guard. Just sliding Rose in next to Wade provides no solutions either; Rose and Wade’s fit is a disaster that’s not going to be fixed unless the two players fundamentally change their skillsets. The Cavs score a woeful 97.2 points per 100 possessions when the two share the floor.
It’s not fair, really. Rose was forced into a different role with different personnel than anybody expected and then played hurt for more than half of his seven games with the team. Once he returns, the role he was signed to play will no longer be available.
That’s life on a championship-contending team. Ask Richard Jefferson, who was shipped out to make room to sign Wade. Ask J.R. Smith, who was benched and then un-benched at the whims of the coaching staff. Ask Channing Frye, whose place in the rotation is consistently in flux.
When Rose returns, he shouldn’t be in the rotation. That means that he would be be relegated to garbage time and injury replacement. That’s not easy on any player, especially ones who reached the individual heights Rose did, and especially not easy when they’re just 29 years old. Rose will have to be a willing and active member of the team even if he’s not getting consistent minutes.
Will he be able to handle that? Who knows. If he can’t, the Cavaliers will have some tough decisions about his future. No team needs an unhappy 11th man, especially not a contending one.
Both Lue and Rose have tough decisions to make moving forward, but the fact remains: the Cavaliers don’t have room for Rose right now, and they may not for the rest of the season.