The ACL and the NBA

There are no three letters in sports that are more feared than ACL.

Before the rise of Dr. James Andrews, who is now something of a legend, an ACL tear meant at least a year of recovery and rehab, and even then an athlete would most likely not be back where they were before the injury. But as Adrian Peterson showed this year, a combination of Andrews’ magic hands and hard work in rehab can bring a player back even better than they were before, at least if Peterson’s stats are to be believed. Now Derrick Rose is ready to return to the Chicago Bulls. Or is he?

He still hasn’t played, and he may well not this year. He’s been “medically cleared” but doesn’t feel ready and doesn’t want to rush it, he says. Bulls’ fans are pushing for his return, and going as far as to doubt his abilities or commitment to the team due to his failure to appear in a game yet.

Thanks to Rose’s injury, I wrote the Bulls off this year. I didn’t even expect them to make the playoffs. But look at where they’ve ended up. They’re the fifth seed in the East, and their first round match against Brooklyn is winnable with some luck. More impressive to me is that they are seventh in the league in team assists per game, led by Kirk Heinrich, ostensibly a two-guard. (Thanks to reader Tyree Harris, who knows way more about the NBA than I do.)  Nate Robinson has had a respectable year, and Heinrich is playing very well. Mostly, though, Luol Dieng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah have all seriously stepped up their game in Rose’s absence.

Which makes it all the more surprising that Bulls fans are pleading so desperately for his return. Their team is solid without him. Solid enough to beat Miami? Unlikely, though I’m not sure if anyone in the East is. He would be helpful in the playoffs against Brooklyn for sure, as someone will need to lock down on Deron Williams, but is that really worth it to bring him back for that?

Even if his leg is 100 percent, he hasn’t played all year; his teammates have adapted to playing without him and have done so admirably well. Reintegrating him into the team may be tough at this point, and it may end up costing them. Is it worth a chance, a not even great chance, to get creamed by Miami in the second round to risk setting back up his recovery and affecting his confidence by playing him when he feels unsteady and unsure?

Meanwhile, Boston has been without Rajon Rondo for sometime, thanks to his ACL tear. Rondo’s recovery seems to be coming along fairly well, thanks in part to the reduced severity of his tear. (Rondo walked off the floor and didn’t realize at first that he had hurt his ACL, while Rose writhed in pain and had to be carried) The Celtics have similarly played better than expectations without him, significantly better than when he was around, in fact. This has led Celtics fans to have the opposite reaction of Bulls fans, wondering whether Rondo should come back at all.

This is wrong as well. Rondo, while not a prolific scorer like Rose, is a dominant point guard, perhaps the best in the Eastern Conference. Combined with the evolution of Jeff Green from heart patient to heart-stopper, Brandon Bass’s improvement, and the addition of the capable Jordan Crawford, the Celtics have solid building blocks. Kevin Garnett will not last forever, Paul Pierce won’t either, and Avery Bradley may or may not stick around in two years when his contract expires, by which point he will likely have at least one DPOY in hand. But Rondo, Bass, Green, Crawford, and a high-rebound big man give the Celtics a solid, if not super-star loaded, roster. Rondo is the future of the Celtics, methinks, just as Rose is the future of the Bulls.

The fact that these two men are still thought of as franchise defining players, even though they’ll both have suffered ACL damage, points to a number of signs. First is how fast the NBA has really gotten. Rose, Rondo, and similarly speedy Chris Paul are considered the three best points in the league. They move quick and cut very hard, much more like NFL running backs than ball distributing guards. No wonder two of them suffered an injury more often equated with NFL running backs.

Second is the miracle of modern sports medicine. Andrews should be inducted into the Halls of Fame, both Springfield and Canton, for his contributions to turning what was once a career ending injury into something that is an adversity chapter in someone’s autobiography. Better knowledge of training and rehab has further improved recovery from devastating injuries.

While not everyone gets to have the miraculous, breathtaking return to form that Adrian Peterson had, its good to know that, eventually, Rose and Rondo will be back. I think with a full summer of building strength, working on his game, and being able to have a training camp to get back in touch with his teammates, Rose will be more dangerous than ever. It will be very interesting to see Rondo when he returns, and what the Celtics do to build around him. Hopefully, their success will continue to make the letters ACL a little less scary.

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