Coach of the Year: Who and Why?

It’s that time of year when the season is winding down and awards must be decided. Coach of the Year may end up tighter than you or I think.

Photo Credit: Keith Allison

Photo Credit: Keith Allison

I can personally guarantee that if the Miami Heat break the win streak record, Erik Spoelstra will win coach of the year. In fact, even if they don’t he is still a likely candidate. However, the problem with coaching such a phenomenal squad is the inescapable claims of dispersion. Sure the Heat had the best record in the East by a wide margin, but who led who? It’s almost unfair. It could very well be that Erik Spoelstra is a mastermind that harnesses the abilities of every Miami asset and carefully crafts them into one pristine unit, but it can just as easily be speculated that James, Wade, and Bosh are too big to fail, regardless of Spoelstra’s involvement. I don’t think the latter can be true, as I can still envision a failed Miami team under the direction of a Keith Smart or a Dwayne Casey, but it’s not entirely false. With so much fire power, the coaching requirements are merely patience and adequacy. While that may be an oversimplification of what Erik Spoelstra brings to the Miami Heat, discerning his legitimate contributions from the raw talent of his players is no easy task in the shroud of stardom.

Photo Credit: JMTimages

Photo Credit: JMTimages

Perennially in the discussion for COY is Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich. The Spurs’ core has shifted very little under the steady course of his leadership, but they haven’t had to. Pop’s rapport with his players has made him one of the most widely admired coaches, by players and fans alike. When the Spurs are in a tight spot they trust him to make the right call, and when it’s his turn to listen, he trusts his players’ judgment and allows for flexibility. That mutual respect is what elevates him above so many others that struggle to fill a coach’s shoes. However, from an award winning standpoint, his seemingly static approach to adaptation lacks flash. San Antonio is the NBA’s silent dynasty, and although “If it aint broke, don’t fix it” is advice to live by, it’s unlikely to bring Gregg Popovich the 2012 repeat he probably deserves.

Photo Credit: Keith Allison

Photo Credit: Keith Allison

Scott Brooks and the Thunder have been impressive this season. The story that has been discussed ad nauseum this year (seriously, it’s mentioned during every Thunder or Rockets telecast) is the James Harden trade. I always admired Brooks for using Harden the way he did. It’s difficult to replace the bench commander, 6th man of the year, and smartest facilitator you have, but Brooks has seamlessly sewn Kevin Martin into the fabric of OKC. The Thunder now sit a game and a half behind #1 ranked San Antonio in the West, despite losing the bearded chemist that bonded the team together. It is no coincidence that Brooks’ players continue to improve under his instruction. Westrbrook’s assists are up, his turnovers are down, Ibaka is in the talk for Most Improved, and Durant is teetering on the cusp of an all-elusive 50/40/90 season. If the Miami Heat’s streak is broken soon, I can see Scott Brooks stepping into the spotlight for Coach of the Year.

Now, you may be thinking, “But you only looked at the coaches with the best records!” and you’d be right. The smart money is on the coach of the most successful team, and I can say without sarcasm that I feel a little unclean for hopping on board the speediest gravy trains. So here’s a nod to the little engine that could still get it done, and my personal vote for Coach of the year…

Photo Credit: David Herrera

Photo Credit: David Herrera

George Karl. The Denver Nuggets took a while to get going, but I had them finishing the regular season as a 3 seed when I first looked at this year’s setup (I also had the Lakers ranked above them, but that’s beside the point. I’m not a psychic). I have to commend Karl for his creativity and foresight. He could have planted the physical freak JaVale McGee in the starting lineup the second he was acquired last season; instead he went with the steady and increasingly effective play of Kosta Koufos. Karl accommodated McGee’s asthma while using him as a stopper off the bench. He also recognized the potential of Kenneth Faried. Now, that’s not exactly difficult, but he also didn’t pigeon-hole the Manimal into a role he wasn’t meant to play. George Karl lets Faried hustle; no plays called for him, no restraints. Just play hard and stay out of foul trouble. Not to mention his trust in Lawson and Iguodala to run the offense and defense respectively. If you can’t tell already, I am very high on Karl’s ability to recognize his player’s strengths and bring them to the forefront to the benefit of the team. The way in which he uses the unique skill set of each player is why I think he deserves coach of the year. Of course, winning games doesn’t hurt either.

Before I put a nice little bow on this piece and call it a night, I’d like to remind the readers (before you remind me) that there are other worthy candidates on the rim of this discussion; most notably Mike Woodson and Vinny Del Negro. So here is my short explanation of why neither of them made my cut. I hope it is satisfactory, and if it isn’t, tough toenails. My word isn’t law.

The New York Knicks are in the position they are in largely because of an incredibly hot start. Granted, they have dealt with injuries all year, but they have not been the only team to do so and their production has suffered both in totality and percentages. I can’t in good faith sign off on a coach for a team that has been on the decline since day one, even if they started on top.

The Clippers record is fantastic and shows marked improvement from last season. But do you remember when Chris Paul missed that stretch of games about halfway through? The Clippers were out of control. Technicals, fines, ejections, suspensions, and games lost that should have been won. CP3 runs that team, not VDN. He’s just in the right place at the right time.

Aaand THERE! The bow is firmly in place; ribbons and all. Good night folks. Keep your eyes on the court. The season may be ending but the discussion has just begun.

The Western Reformation

Whether you are for it or against it, the relocation of the Sacramento Kings to Seattle is a very real possibility. Growing up in the northwest, I’ve missed the rivalry between the Super Sonics and the Trail Blazers, and I’m interested to see if it will be resurrected should the move go through.

It’s curious that with all the speculation that arises in the sports world, both professional and water cooler, I have yet to hear the divisional implications of relocation addressed. Should the Kings take up the Sonics’ mantle, the Pacific division would become a bit scattered. In the interest of bolstering the I-5 rivalry, my friend, Mike, and I began exploring ways to shuffle the Western Conference in order to put Portland and Seattle in the same division.

Here is what the Western Conference would look like if the Sacramento Kings became the Seattle Super Sonics with no divisional changeup:

The Western Conference

The Western Conference

If you’re like me, seeing a conference that labels its divisions by location awkwardly split doesn’t sit right with you. Mike and I began bouncing changes off each other.

Initially, we tried to do too much; moving OKC around to create a more geographically pleasing set up. The specifics of the proposed switches escape me now, as they were little more than idle dreamings of my ‘Commissioner Complex’.

Despite the unrealistic expectations of our theoretical composition, my desire to reform the NBA snowballed, resulting in wild delusions of expansion teams, league wide. Perhaps the inception of two more franchises is an eventuality, but as it stands, my 32 team fantasy land may be a tad unfundable. Still, the notion of four divisions of four teams within each conference keeps me warm at night. Maybe if Las Vegas and Virginia Beach had franchises the ensuing shuffle could untangle the geographic complexities of past relocations.

Weeks passed and we were nowhere near a new agreement. Every solution we invented was promptly met with a roadblock to quash our enthusiasm. Divisions were becoming overpowered or outmatched, teams were lumped in with regions they had no business occupying. It was Mike who first came to realize that we were trying to do too much and him I credit with this idea:

“What if we just switched Portland and Phoenix?” I glanced at the text message and hardly gave it a second thought. We had been boiling down the possibilities for so long I wasn’t about to waste mental energy on a newfangled scheme. If I’m being honest, I tried to start my response with reasons that it wouldn’t work, but damn if he didn’t have a point.

Here is what the Western conference would look like under what I will call, the Michael initiative:

Michael's Western Conference

Michael’s Western Conference

It’s actually kind of elegant in its simplicity. The Blazers and the Suns are of similar caliber, so no division becomes too strong, and the geography checks out. The Suns can join the other ‘four-corner’ states and the Blazers can connect the chain of West Coast teams. Of course, personally I’d rename the Northwest division, since it would be less distributed there. West Central maybe? I’m just spit-balling here. The point of this grand hypothetical is that if the Seattle deal goes through as planned, our little game of musical chairs would help reformulate old rivalries without severing current ones. It just makes too much sense.

Player Piece: Kenneth Faried

Photo/Art credit: David MacKay (Myself)

Photo/Art credit: David MacKay (Myself)

This young man has steadily ascended to the heights of Mt. Molehill I’ve designated for my favorite players. In fact, I’ve been meaning to write an article on him for quite some time, but I was curious to see how his accolades piled up in recent weeks before signing off on this endeavor. The Denver Nuggets’ power forward has been headline news of late, but not for his regular season play (although he should be).

Kenneth was selected to participate in his first (of many) All Star Weekends. He may not have competed in the grand poobah ASG, but he quietly accepted his invitation to the Rising Stars Challenge, as is his nature. An athletic sophomore with a penchant for dunking that doesn’t need plays called for him? What could possibly happen in a play-as-you-go scrimmage amongst the best young players?

A 40 point, 10 rebound game; that’s what. Never in his basketball career (high school, college, or professional) had Kenneth Faried scored more than 30 points. Much less 40. The high flying forward scored basket after basket on dunk after dunk to total 18/22 field goal attempts. Even with a style of play suited for the Rising Star Challenge, no one predicted that he’d bring home the MVP, but he got it done.

Here’s my favorite part. The man is humble. Imagine Tim Duncan, but a little more at ease with cameras and a microphone. Kenneth excitedly, but graciously, spoke with the TNT crew after the game and stood in disbelief as he was flooded with praise from Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’neal, and Karl Malone. A class act all the way (Just don’t call him Kenny).

But he’s more than just a great player. I would be remiss if I did not mention his recent off court venture. He appeared with his mothers, Manasin and Waudda Faried, in an LGBT OneColorado video supporting civil union. Faried is the 1st NBA player to join a Gay Rights group. Now, I suppose I shouldn’t take a stance on a non-basketball issue, so as not to alienate readers, so I’ll simply applaud his initiative.

Back to the basketball court and perhaps what you came here for. Kenneth is having an outstanding season. He has averaged 12.3 points and 9.7 rebounds IN UNDER 30 MINUTES A GAME. That is phenomenal efficiency. More than that, he can be called upon to bring it every second he’s on the hardwood. There is a reason he’s called “The Manimal”. One man’s missed lay in is another man’s put-back. Faried is that other man. He is the embodied reassembly of broken plays, trailing the runner every time. That is part of why he has the 5th most offensive rebounds of any NBA player this season, just above Joakim Noah. Granted, this does not account for the occasional missed game of other players, but that’s another thing; Faried has not missed a game this season.

What makes this truly incredible is that Faried is what I’ll call a “banger”. He lives in the paint and plays an explosive game. He hits the deck hard, he get’s fouled hard, he leaps for every rebound, and yet any resulting booboo is shaken off for the sake of continuation. Remember young Gerald Wallace? Faried plays with the same burning intensity, but greater efficiency. I like to remind my buddies that I claimed him to be “the best hustle player in the NBA within 3 seasons” during his rookie campaign, and it would seem that he’s perfectly on pace. Of course, it is very difficult to statistically quantify the skills of a hustle player, so there is room for speculation.

If you take just one thing from this story, I want you to keep watching him. If you haven’t been, start. It has been many years since I have seen such a ferocious player with such a deferential mindset. Look for him to become a leader in Denver as the seasons pass. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the youthful enthusiasm and raw power he brings to the Mile High City and the NBA as a whole.

ASG Selection: Why Stephen Curry was “Snubbed”

Photo Credit: Keith Allison

Photo Credit: Keith Allison

Stephen Curry’s absence from the 2013 ASG has kept the basketball world buzzing since the reserves were announced on Thursday. The Warriors point guard has been instrumental in Golden State’s newfound success and currently leads the league in 3 point shots made per game. But was he really a snub? A few things have to be understood first.

Each conference is allowed a 12 man roster, consisting of 4 guards, 6 forwards, and 2 wildcards. This breaks down into 2 starting guards, 3 starting forwards, 2 bench guards, 3 bench forwards, and 2 bench players of undetermined position.

As a guard, there were 6 roster spots he was eligible to fill; 4 guards, 2 wildcards. Given that Curry is not starter caliber at this time, he was realistically competing for 1 of 4 spots.

The starters are voted by the fans, while the reserves are chosen by the coaches. Unless Curry was in the conversation as a starter (he wasn’t), his involvement in the all star game was not determined by NBA fans.

Now, let’s focus on the reserves. The players that made it ahead of Stephen Curry were: Tony Parker (G), Russell Westbrook (G), James Harden (G), Tim Duncan (F), Zach Randolph (F), LaMarcus Aldridge (F), and David Lee (F). For sake of comparison, their stats are as follows:

Tony Parker (Guard) San Antonio Spurs:
Points per game: 19.8, Rebounds per game: 2.9, Assists per game: 7.4, Steals per game: 0.9, Blocks per game: 0.1, Turnovers per game: 2.4, (Minutes per game: 32.8)

Russell Westbrook (Guard) Oklahoma City Thunder:
Points per game: 22.7, Rebounds per game: 5.3, Assists per game: 8.1, Steals per game: 1.9, Blocks per game: 0.3, Turnovers per game: 3.5, (Minutes per game: 36.5)

James Harden (Guard) Houston Rockets:
Points per game: 25.8, Rebounds per game: 4.5, Assists per game: 5.4, Steals per game: 1.9, Blocks per game: 0.5, Turnovers per game: 3.9, (Minutes per game: 38.6)

Tim Duncan (Forward) San Antonio Spurs:
Points per game: 17.5, Rebounds per game: 9.8, Assists per game: 2.8, Steals per game: 0.8, Blocks per game: 2.7, Turnovers per game: 2.0, (Minutes per game: 30.2)

Zach Randolph (Forward) Memphis Grizzlies:
Points per game: 16.1, Rebounds per game: 11.6, Assists per game: 1.4, Steals per game: 0.8, Blocks per game: 0.5, Turnovers per game: 2.1, (Minutes per game: 35.1)

LaMarcus Aldridge (Forward) Portland Trail Blazers:
Points per game: 20.7, Rebounds per game: 8.8, Assists per game: 2.5, Steals per game: 1.0, Blocks per game: 1.3, Turnovers per game: 2.0, (Minutes per game: 38.0)

David Lee (Forward) Golden State Warriors:
Points per game: 19.6, Rebounds per game: 10.8, Assists per game: 3.7, Steals per game: 0.9, Blocks per game: 0.2, Turnovers per game: 2.7, (Minutes per game: 37.6)

Given that 3 guards were chosen as reserves, we can assume that either Parker, Westbrook, or Harden was a wild card selection. Is Curry more deserving than any of them?

Stephen Curry (Guard) Golden State Warriors:
Points per game: 20.9, Rebounds per game: 4.1, Assists per game: 6.6, Steals per game: 1.7, Blocks per game: 0.2, Turnovers per game: 2.9, (Minutes per game: 38.2)

He can’t compare to the breakout scoring of James Harden, nor can he compare to the staggering athleticism of Russell Westbrook (as much as I hate to say it). They both have him beat statistically. Besides, Westbrook and Curry are the 7th and 8th leading scorers in the NBA, respectively. It might be different if Curry dished out dramatically more assists, but as it stands, there’s no reason for a leap frog in all star priority.

His most comparable competitor for a guard slot is Tony Parker. They have shown similar abilities to score and facilitate this season; however, Tony does it in 5 fewer minutes a game. Not only that, Parker plays for the team with the 2nd best record in the West and he is 6 years Curry’s senior. Remember, the coaches are making this call, and no impartial coach will oust a polished veteran in favor of a burgeoning star if the numbers don’t add up.

This leaves one spot left for Stephen; the 2nd wild card. So who’s left? Remember, the reserve forwards are Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph, LaMarcus Aldridge, and David Lee. I’m going to save us a little time and say that Duncan, Aldridge, and Lee are locks. Feel free to debate this, but I’m going to move forward.

So for the very last spot on the all star reserves list, it comes down to Stephen Curry vs. Zach Randolph; most 3s vs. 2nd most rebounds. While it may be more fun to watch Curry drill deep 3s than it is to watch Z-Bo clean the glass, the reserves are not elected for flash. Both are great at what they do, but here are what I see as the tie-breaking factors:

1. This is Stephen Curry’s 4th season in the NBA while it is Zach Randolph’s 12th.
2. Memphis has a better record than Golden State and deserves to be represented in the ASG.
3. Golden State is already represented by David Lee.

I would like to take a moment to say that I really like Stephen Curry. I would have loved to see him compete in the all star game this year, as I’m sure he will in years to come, but he just didn’t make the cut. It doesn’t mean that he’s bad, it doesn’t mean the system is unfair, it just means that there are a lot of excellent players in the Western Conference this year. This was not a snub. It was a carefully thought out decision made by those most qualified to make it. Was it close? Certainly. But sometimes there just isn’t enough room.

A Night in the Garden

Photo Credit: Me

Photo Credit: Me

Last night I treated my parents to the Blazers vs. Wizards game at the Rose Garden. My father was excited to get a glance at this year’s squad, while my mother was dismayed that she could not bring her knitting (or at least, I wouldn’t let her). As we crossed the bridge and drew closer to the arena, my excitement grew. The prospect of watching the Washington Wizards play may often go unappreciated by the non-John Wall enthusiast, but I was pumped. And, of course, I wanted to see my Blazers in action.

We ascended into nosebleed heaven and took our seats as the respective starters were announced. Amazing what $5 can get you if you know where to look. To the chagrin of my Portland pride and the benefit of my fantasy team, Nene started red hot with 17 points in the 1st quarter. Wouldn’t you know it, the onliest, loneliest Wizards fan in Portland was seated 2 rows back. And his kid was louder than Rambo III.

Unfortunately, there was little to quiet the aspiring Green Beret because the Wizards continued bringing heat. The Brazilian behemoth was intent on exploiting our lack of a traditional center and Hickson was hurting for it. It might have been alright if J.J. had answered on offense, but he kept traveling like Tom Hanks was chasing him down for check fraud. That isn’t to say he was entirely ineffective, he was just frustrating. The dunks were well appreciated though.

By the 2nd half we had gotten our act together enough to elect Nicolas Batum “Mr. Everything”. He heroically picked up the slack the rest of the Blazers had left for him. But one man can only do so much; the Wizards were finding their deep game. Turns out we didn’t want to guard the perimeter either. I suppose that’s a bit unfair. I have to commend Randy Wittman. He read our defense like he was a 12 year old girl and we were Twilight fan-fiction.

Now remember the little Rambo 2 rows back? Well an avid Blazer fan of the same age had made it his duty to be the Soviets to his Stallone. As the game tightened they were trying to out-loud each other’s chants of “DEFENSE!” That is until that crafty John Rambo discovered he could yell “OFFENSE!” to counteract the rest of the Rose Garden. This resulted in the rare “DOFFENSE!” chant, rendered in the earsplitting harmony only a duet of battling 5 year olds can create.

But back to the game. John Wall was struggling, as was Damian Lillard. The point guard showdown I had envisioned was slowly trickling toward an ugly end. I didn’t have my fancy game stats in front of me, but I believe my beloved R.O.Y. candidate was 1/10 at one point. Of course, in true Lillard fashion, he lit up the 4th quarter with 12 points, including a savage dunk on Nene. It was rather gratifying after watching the braided big man decimate us for 3 quarters.

Regrettably, Jordan Crawford heated up at the same time and killed us from the arc. After a mini-comeback, the Blazers brought the game within 3. With 7.9 seconds remaining, Westchester Matthews (as my college roommate dubbed him) had a Miami flashback and drilled a clutch trey to tie the game. Talk about an eruption. It was like Neil Peart played a solo on my ear drums, but I’d gladly relive that moment 1,000 times.

However, I am satisfied with once for the moment that followed. Jordan Crawford pulled up over Westchester for an off balance 3 as time expired. You could have heard a pin drop if Rambo wasn’t blowing up helicopters. A quick review confirmed that the shot would count and the Blazers would lose their 6th game in a row. I’m proud of Washington though. They have now won 4 of their last 6 games since Wall’s return from injury. It would take a more scornful man than I to begrudge them their 9th win of the season.

I look forward to Tuesday’s game against Indiana. If you recall, we had made a bid for their center, Roy Hibbert, last year but focused on keeping Nicolas Batum when Indiana matched our offer. If tonight has proven anything to me, it is that we ended up with a stud nonetheless. But can we step it up as a team in time to face the Pacers?

Happy retroactive MLK Day- David MacKay

Jeff Green Reclaims the Scene

Photo Credit: Keith Allison

Photo Credit: Keith Allison

Admittedly, I am not a Celtics fan. In fact, if I had to pick one NBA team to hurl into the sun for the good of humanity, it would be the Boston Celtics. Rondo is immensely talented, but he carries himself like the 6th grade boy that has just discovered bravado. I have a hard time liking athletes with maturity issues. Garnett is even worse. What kind of human being can wish Tim Duncan a “Happy Mother’s Day” just to get inside his head, knowing full well that Mrs. Duncan died of breast cancer when Timmy was tiny? That’s messed. And let’s not forget about Paul ‘Head Fake’ Pierce. I still haven’t forgiven him for the infamous minute and a half he spent wheeling about in my sympathy wagon during the 2008 finals. Ray Allen was the only player keeping me neutral toward the green machine. When he left the greener pastures for warmer sands, my disgust spilled through the hole he left behind. I could fill dozens of pages with my animosity toward the Celtics, and while the notion is appealing, that is not what prompted my fingers to the keyboard tonight.

Have you been watching Jeff Green lately? If you’ve only just joined the realm of the NBA obsessed, you are completely justified in saying, “Jeff who?” He missed all of last season after being diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm (swelling of the body’s major artery). Forget not knowing if you’ll ever play again, imagine not knowing if you’re going to make it through another day without dying of a massive internal hemorrhage. Let’s just say, the kid’s had it rough. Green had life saving surgery on January 9th 2012 and spent his recovery time finishing his English degree from Georgetown. That’s part of why I like him so much. He has the ambition to improve himself outside of basketball.

But back to the point. Despite having major heart surgery just one year ago, Green appears to be approaching full strength. He is the bench spark any team would be lucky to have. Hell, I’d take him on Portland in a heartbeat; he and LaMarcus could start a club for irregular ones, and we desperately need the depth. Perhaps un-ironically, what Jeff brings off the bench is heart. Like Mark Cuban, I am not fond of generalities in analysis, but it’s true. The emphasis with which Green plays basketball is a momentum shifter for the Boston Celtics. That’s why the stand-by Small Forward is living in the highlight reel.

Now, it has been brought to my attention by a cohort of mine that Green’s numbers are down this year. He is only averaging about 10 points/3 rebounds per game, compared to the 15 and 6 he averaged in OKC. If you are of his camp and believe that Jeff Green is not worth the 4 year $36M contract, that’s perfectly fine, but please keep the following in mind:

1) He was brought in to replace an aging Paul Pierce, hence the large contract. It was anticipated that Pierce would retire or otherwise be traded (he is being shopped again, just as he was last year) but he has remained a Celtic.

2) This means that Green is not starting, and thus, his average minutes have dropped from 37 in OKC to 23 in Boston. When you look at Green’s statistics per 36 minutes for this season, they are virtually identical to his averages when he was seeing 37 a game for the Thunder.

3) Another burden of Pierce’s presence (aside from Pierce’s presence) is how the offense is structured. The role of the 3 is conceived for spot up shooting and ranged jumpers off the screen. This fits the 6’7″ Pierce’s style nicely, but it is not Green’s (6’9″) forte. As a result, he’s seen a decline in field goal percentage.

4) Where Green comes to life is at the rim. His versatile size- 6’9″, 235 (the same specs as Kevin Durant) allows him to bang with the bruisers. Ask Al Jefferson if he remembers being on Green’s poster.

5) When he’s not slamming on Centers, his size creates defensive mismatches, opening up opportunities for his teammates and himself.

6) He’s playing basketball. He could be dead. That doesn’t mean he’s good; I just wanted to remind you.

7) Regardless, he IS good. He has maintained the expected level of play, in fewer minutes, with a new explosiveness that gets the crowd behind the C’s.

My point is this; Jeff Green has done no less than asked of him and he’s done it with style. The lousy leprechauns could use an unsung hero with a little bang-bang-boogie. He is my new hope within a retched hive of scum and villainy. I am very interested to see how the Celtics evolve in the coming years. He’s already their 5th highest scorer and he’s only in the secondary. I can’t imagine a future move to the starting lineup would do anything bad for his performance. An athletic forward that favors plowing the lane should couple nicely with the league’s assist leader. If he continues to improve his play, expect that $36M contract to be a bargain. Especially when Pierce’s time is up. If you’re too pressed for time to catch a game, just watch the weekly NBA Top 10 Plays. It’s Green’s scene.

Rose-Colored Glasses

Photo credit: Keith Allison

Photo credit: Keith Allison

Hope and fear; the inseparable dualism that accompanies the prospect of greatness. It has been 263 days since Chicago Bulls Point Guard, Derrick Rose, tore his ACL in the first round of the 2012 playoffs. As his return to the court looms around the corner, many questions remain unanswered: Will he be the same player that won MVP in 2011? Is he still the Point Guard of the future he was cast as? Can he reassimilate to the Bulls in time to make a playoff run? We won’t know until we see him play, but here are the most important facets of Rose’s game to monitor when he returns to action:

1) Agility- Derrick Rose needs to be able to get low for the crossover. His ability to penetrate at will is a staple of his game. Watch for him to make the hard cuts and put his man on skates. He must maintain his ability to change directions on a dime if he hopes to be as effective as he was last season. Defensively too. If he can’t fight around screens or adjust to his man while backpedaling, he’s not going to be the player he was. Keep an eye on his stance. He’s got to be comfortable playing wide and low like a Porsche in order to handle like one.

2) Explosiveness- Rose and Westbrook are often considered the most athletic Point Guards in the league; and it’s true. At least, it was. Granted, I only consider Westbrook a Point Guard by technicality of assignment. Regardless, Derrick needs to be able to go 0 to 60 in no seconds flat. Not 2 seconds, not 1 second, it needs to be instantaneous. His extra step forces the defense to collapse on him, creating better looks for Noah and Boozer. He has to have that signature burst of speed in order to establish those opportunities, much less finish inside.

3) Verticality- It’s no secret that Rose has some serious ups. Watch him split the defense on the drive. 9 times out of 10 he’ll jump through the gap, tuck the ball, and finish with a scoop. That 10th time? It’s a dunk. Even when he’s not launching himself at the rim, he gets most of his power from his legs. I’m talking about that floater in the lane. Rose propels himself above the straining arms of defenders and just guides the ball toward the hoop with his finger tips. In order to do all this, his knee has to be as strong and stable as it was before the injury.

4) Mentality- This is easily the most important. It’s the biggest hurdle, and you have to convince yourself you can jump it before you stand a chance. My basketball coach growing up always told me “Listen my little godsend master champion, some people will tell you that basketball is not a contact sport. It may not be an IMPACT sport like football, but you better expect to get hit.”- (paraphrase). Rose has always excelled in traffic. If he’s not ready to knock knees or take hard fouls, he’s not where he needs to be. There are a lot of feet to land on when you play as acrobatically as he does. He can’t let caution turn into fear.

When “The Return” becomes “The Reality” we have to take off our Rose-colored glasses and acknowledge that he may never be what he was. Personally, I think he can do it. Derrick is a fierce competitor and an incredible athlete. But if he can’t, don’t say I didn’t warn you. An Adrian Peterson-esque reversion is a lot to expect from any mortal. Look at Ricky Rubio. I know, I know, give him time, but you have to acknowledge the struggle. He’s been back for a month and he’s still experiencing pain. Of course, they are two very different players, so perhaps Rose will fare better in the long run. Just pay close attention to Derrick’s play during that time. Only when he is doing all these things at the same level that he was before, will I rejoice. Until then, I hope that he does, but I fear that he won’t.