Is Derrick Rose Catfishing the Timberwolves?

Derrick Rose has had a strong start to the season, but what can fans expect from him going forward?

Nostalgia is commonplace in our society. It helps us relive easier times and enjoy the good old days. In sports we love comparing eras, asking 'Is Texas football back?' every fall, or in this case, truly wondering is Derrick Rose back? Ever since Rose blew out his knee in 2012, he has been far from the player we saw win MVP. His defense has been atrocious, his offense has been undisciplined, and his off the court behavior has been erratic, to say the least. After a disastrous start to the 2017 season with Cleveland, the Cavaliers traded him to Utah who promptly waived him. At this point, it seemed likely that Rose’s NBA career could be over. Luckily for Rose, his old coach Tom Thibodeau is still coaching and unable to move on from the past success of his Bulls teams.

In early March last season, Rose received another chance from Minnesota and played surprisingly well. This excited fans, reignited haters, and breathed new life into the Rose fanatics that never stopped believing. The late-season success led to Rose earning a one-year contract with Minnesota and a prominent role off the bench. In the early stages of this season, Rose has played well. His effort level is high, he is creating on offense, and he has looked like a solid rotation player. So why am I still unable to completely buy in? Is this who Rose is now? Is he a solid rotation player or will he revert to the liability we’ve seen the past six years?

Rose as a Playmaker

Rose has looked his best when he is attacking the rim. He has lost a lot of his explosiveness but he has regained his quickness and ability to sliver into the lane to create scoring chances. When Rose is on the floor the Timberwolves have their third-best offensive rating of 109.6. He is scoring 14.8 points, 4.5 assists, and 3.5 rebounds per game. His usage rate is 22.1 and he has recorded 32.5 percent of the team’s assists. When he is on the floor, the offense runs through him whether he is attacking the rim or setting up teammates.

Rose has always required the ball in his hands on offense. This year he has excelled when running the pick and roll. As a team, Minnesota is averaging 1.164 points per possession (88th percentile) when Rose is running the pick and roll. When he uses the pick to create his own scoring opportunity, he is averaging a respectable .839 points per possession, which is similar to Victor Oladipo, Devin Booker, and Lou Williams.

Here we see Rose’s comfort when running the pick and roll. As Gorgui Dieng goes to set the pick, Norman Powell decides to try and go over the pick. At this point, Rose has already recognized that he has beaten Powell. Powell struggles to get through the pick cleanly and once Rose has turned the corner, he pushes off his left foot for a side hop to get in front of Powell. Now Powell must rotate back on Dieng, a decent mid-range shooter, and is no longer a factor. Valanciunas is now the primary defender and continues to drop towards the rim. As Rose gathers himself in the lane, Valanciunas takes one extra step back leaving Rose open for an easy floater.

The above clip sets up similarly to the previous one but ends up in a much less creative finish. After the earlier side pick and roll with Rose and Powell, Valanciunas decides to take a different approach defensively. As Dieng goes to set the pick on the wing, Valanciunas chooses to go out and try to hedge, leaving the lane wide open. In the first clip, Powell’s defensive stance guided Rose into the pick. However, as we see in this clip, Powell changes his stance to force Rose towards the middle of the floor, suggesting he expected Valanciunas to play drop coverage again. Rose welcomes the driving lane and blows past Powell. As he drives, CJ Miles hesitates to commit because of the kick-out possibility of Anthony Tolliver in the corner. The result is an easy two points for Rose at the rim.

Miles’s hesitation is warranted as Tolliver is a very good shooter and the Timberwolves are averaging an amazing 1.583 points per possession (97th percentile) when Rose passes out of the pick and roll. For most of Rose’s career, he has averaged around 4 assists per game. Even though his assist average this year is consistent with the rest of his career, it is more impressive due to the efficiency of his passes. This season he is recording a career-high assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.86 because of his improved patience and decision making when passing out of the pick and roll. When Rose has run the pick and roll and passed to the roll man it has been an almost guaranteed two points. In these situations, the Timberwolves are averaging 1.727 points per possession (97th percentile).

The below clip is a great example of how Rose has improved with his patience and floor vision. Dieng sets a solid pick on Jalen Brunson, which clears a lane for Rose to drive straight at Dwight Powell. With Brunson taken out of the play by the pick, Powell has to switch onto Rose. Once Rose recognizes this, he takes a slight hesitation dribble that allows Brunson to recover instead of switch back on Dieng. By inviting the double team, Rose has ensured that he will have an open teammate in Dieng right under the hoop or Tolliver open for three on the weak side. Maximilian Kleber has to make the choice to rotate down on Dieng and leave Tolliver or remain in the passing lane to eliminate Tolliver’s open shot. Rose realizes that Dieng is unguarded and leaves his feet to simulate a shot attempt, which causes Powell to leave his feet as well. Rose is able to dump the pass off to Dieng for an easy dunk.

This is the typical action that we’ve come to expect out of the pick and roll. As the NBA has continued to develop, the drive and kick option has become more popular, more efficient, and more impactful. When Rose runs the pick and roll and passes out to a spot-up shooter, the team is averaging 1.545 points per possession (97th percentile). This has been a huge development in Rose’s game. In the past, Rose played as if he had blinders on, often struggling to find spot-up shooters and instead forcing contested shots or committing turnovers.

This clip shows the patience that has been missing from Rose’s arsenal in prior seasons. Powell is able to get through Dieng’s pick rather smoothly but Rose is still able to stay in front of him. This invites the engagement of Valanciunas who is still close enough to easily recover to Dieng. Off the ball, we see that as Dieng rolls to the rim, Tolliver notices the wide open space on the elbow and flashes there from the corner. As this is happening, OG Anunoby makes the decision that Kleber did not in the earlier clip. Anunoby rotates down to completely eliminate Dieng from the play and consequently leaves Tolliver wide open. Rose recognizes the defensive rotations and is able to kick it out to Tolliver for an easy three.

With the prominent use of the pick and roll, it is vital for primary ball handlers to be comfortable running it. This season Rose has improved his decision making and been able to slow the game down. His passing vision has improved and he has done a better job of determining when to attack the rim. We have also seen Rose flourish when running in transition. This season the Timberwolves are seventh in the league averaging 17.7 fast break points per game. Rose has been a big part of this as the team averages 1.417 points per possession (87th percentile) when he is running the fast break.

After all of that, the answer is obvious, Derrick Rose is back… right? As encouraging as his improvements have been, there is still some cause for hesitation. I’m a firm believer in sample size matters and over the past six seasons, Rose has been essentially awful. Just last year Rose’s disturbing play led him to be both traded AND waived. He had a net rating of -7.7, an assist to turnover ratio of .93, and had a PER of just 11.6 (league average is 15). While he has looked better so far, there are still plenty of signs of concern. His defensive rating has improved but is still a dreadful 110.1. Rose has been a constant target for opponents to attack as he is allowing 1.286 points per possession overall (2nd percentile). As good as he’s been offensively in the pick and roll he has been just as abysmal defensively, allowing 1.5 points per possession (1st percentile). There are literally only two players that are worse than him.

On the offensive end, there are still plenty of questions. Rose has never been a good shooter, he's a career 29.6 percent shooter from three, but that hasn’t seemed to register with him. This year he is up to three three-point attempts per game despite shooting just 27.8 percent.

In this clip, we see the good version of Rose’s shooting form. He gets his feet set, doesn’t jump too high, has a solid arc on his shot, and has a smooth, high release point. The problem is that this is a rare occurrence and the below travesty is much more common. It starts with Rose jumping too high. He does this a lot where he over-elevates on his jump shot which throws off his entire release. His release is then late. Instead of shooting on the way up, his release is after he’s already reached his peak. This late release results in more of a push shot with little arc instead of the smooth release we saw earlier.

Part of Rose’s game that made fans fall in love with him was his reckless abandon. This would result in breathtaking plays but also induce mind-numbing mistakes. Rose has often used his athleticism to make up for his lack of size, but this can get him into a lot of trouble. Even though Rose’s patience and decision making have seemed to improve, there are still plenty of warnings that regression is imminent. He thoroughly enjoys the jump pass which is any coach’s nightmare. His shot selection continues to struggle as he is tightly guarded (defender within 4 feet) on 48.7 percent of his shot attempts. Defensively he continues to be one of the worst in the league.

I feel confident in answering that no, Derrick Rose is in fact not back. Has he improved from the train wreck we’ve seen over the last few years? He absolutely has, and he has been an important piece in sparking the offense with the Timberwolves' second group. He is also a complete sieve defensively and will find himself in ill-advised situations. The question of "Is Derrick Rose back?" is nonsense. The MVP version of the past is gone and we need to stop wishing for its resurrection. What Rose has been able to do this year is encouraging. While I hope that this continues, I am still completely aware of the warning signs that make me hesitate on fully buying in.

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