The youngest MVP in NBA history is teaming up with the best player of this generation, and the results can be better than many expect them to be.
Richard Mackson - USA TODAY Sports
NBA players who compete on a team alongside LeBron James are forced to confront more abstract obstacles than their peers elsewhere in the league. From head games filtered through his Instagram account to the daily pressure of pleasing an all-time (all-time) great, if you want the job playing with James, you better be ready for some hiccups.
Derrick Rose, a talented, maligned, half-broke 28-year-old in desperate search of a third act, was more than happy to shrug off that relatively minor downside. By signing a one-year, $2.1 million contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Rose is in the best situation of his post-ACL-tear career, working beside the most qualified co-author in basketball history—a surreal, selfless wrecking ball who may be the only person alive talented enough to exhume the very best of Rose's once show-stopping self.
This is the best environment for Rose, and it should also benefit a Cleveland franchise that's hurtling toward irrelevance. Expectations must be tempered—meaning nobody should think Rose is any contender's missing ingredient, particularly against the Golden State Warriors—but the most reasonable ones should acknowledge who Rose currently is and what he can still do.
In his lone season with the New York Knicks, Rose averaged 20 points per 36 minutes with his highest True Shooting percentage since he last made an All-Star team. Playing for a new contract in a system ill-suited to accentuate his strengths, he endured that frustrating circumstance with blinders, hardly focused on bettering those around him and instead obsessed over getting to the basket—defensive coverage be damned—to rediscover the flair that previously had transformed him into one of the world's most popular athletes.
There were more valleys than peaks with this mindset, though. Rose wasn't particularly useful; few in the league appeared more disinterested on the defensive end, and he didn't earn back any of the cache that had made him a household name. But that doesn't mean he's washed-up or even a negative player. A brighter context can shift this narrative, and a tighter role can improve Rose's productivity.
Still, LeBron can't save everyone, and not everyone can help LeBron. Rose has a few more practical weaknesses that can't be ignored. His three-point percentage was a pitiful 27.1 last year. Even more horrifying, he made only 13 threes all season long—the lowest in his entire career. (Rose canned 16 threes in the ten games he played in 2014. Ten games!)
That measures out to a tidy 3.4 percent of his overall points coming beyond the arc. Two years ago, that number was 25.2 percent. It's one thing for a defense to ignore a poor outside shot by sagging off whenever he doesn't have the ball. It's another not to even fear a three-point try even occurring with ten feet of space.
Rose's gravity was non-existent. He can't afford to play the same way in Cleveland, particularly if he replaces Kyrie Irving in the starting lineup. James depends on space to wreak havoc; the players who surround him must force their defenders to hesitate on a double team or at least make opponents pay from the outside when left open.
It's unlikely Rose can thrive in the same way others have, but that doesn't mean he can't find success through another prism. Rose averaged 5.9 shots per game on drives to the rim last season, which ranked third in the entire league, and made 51.2 percent of them. (For comparison, on 5.5 attempts per game, Irving shot 51.4 percent.)
He's still explosive enough to reach the basket, but last year he was too stubborn to kick out and find open teammates whose defenders collapsed to block off the paint. Rose's assist rate sunk down to a career-low 22.8—only his own teammate Brandon Jennings did worse—and the once-elite finisher shot only 54.7 percent in the restricted area. Of the 27 guards who averaged at least four shots in the restricted area last season, Rose ranked 22nd.
All of that is clearly not great, but New York's offense didn't function when Rose hit the bench. The Knicks scored 107.3 points per 100 possessions when he played and a team-low 101.8 when he didn't. A variety of factors are behind those two numbers, but at least some of them stem from the fact that Rose wasn't all terrible. His mid-range shot was decent and he performed admirably as a pick-and-roll ball handler, whether his man went above or below the screen.
His former team also wasn't too interested in shooting threes, limiting the space Rose had to drive and create. That won't be the case in Cleveland, where Kevin Love, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye will keep the floor spread at all times. Tristan Thompson is a buoyant lob threat and James is a chessboard queen who demands attention from the other side at all times.
Last year, Rose's field goal percentage was 49.3 percent when he didn't share the court with Joakim Noah. It dropped to 43.8 percent when they played together. There are no weak links in Cleveland who defenses will pretend are invisible.
Rose should be more comfortable in this setting, with better opportunities to score and less pressure to make plays. On top of that, this signing gives Cleveland a little more leeway to execute a seemingly inevitable Irving trade. Rose is not a long-term answer, but for an organization that's incapable of planning anything concrete beyond the 2017-18 season, he's a useful piece. Now the Cavs aren't forced to demand back a starting-caliber point guard in a trade. Rose's presence allows Cleveland to entertain something like the following hypothetical offer from the Orlando Magic: Aaron Gordon, Terrence Ross, Jonathan Isaac—who can't be dealt until July 31—and a top-eight protected first-round pick in 2018.
(That package of players doesn't necessarily complement James or make Cleveland better equipped to down the Warriors in a seven-game series, but it does give their front office more intriguing chips to dangle before the trade deadline.)
The Cavaliers will not be better with Rose than they were with Irving, assuming they move on from the four-time All-Star. But the output they'll get from their new point guard should still exceed that of any typical veteran's minimum contract. Rose will never be the player he once was, but playing next to LeBron and Love, in a relatively more functional environment than the ones found in New York and Chicago, he could have his finest season in years.