"My strength is made perfect in weakness." - 2 Corinthians 12:9
What could Derrick Rose and an English poet from the 17th century possibly have in common? Only a shared desire to be the best in their respective fields. That, and a natural sense of rhythm.
The author John Milton took the above Bible verse for his personal motto after he went blind in the 1650s. Many of his contemporaries saw his blindness as divine punishment, retribution for political beliefs they did not share, but Milton himself saw it differently. He approached his blindness as a gift-a loss of sight that remade him into an even greater poet than he had been before.
Milton went on to write his masterpiece Paradise Lost. He is also credited with the introduction of hundreds of new words to the English language, words we use today such as pandemonium, terrific, and complacency.
What does this have to do with basketball? "My strength is made perfect in weakness" can apply to just as well to basketball as it does to writing. Think of the playing style of Chris Paul. There is something awkward about him, a syncopation of natural rhythm-he waits a quarter-second longer to deliver a pass, takes another half step before rising for a layup. This awkwardness makes him great, and is the natural extension of his formative years, playing as a small guy without the natural advantages of larger players. Through determination, the biggest small guy in the NBA took his weakness and forged it into a strength.
Now think of Derrick Rose. He doesn't have an obvious physical weakness to latch onto. You could say he is a poor defender, and you would be right, but the question I want to answer is why does he struggle on defense? The conventional response is "experience," and it is valid but it also doesn't completely answer the question. Derrick is a 20 year-old who has been steered towards basketball since he was a child. He could be better at defense, but he is not. Why?
I believe Derrick hasn't failed enough yet to reach his full potential. He is so gifted with physical and basketball skills that he hasn't had to play the game at the next level, the game behind the game that allowed Sam Cassell to be effective at age 38. Derrick has had success without needing to get there first, but he is rapidly approaching a crossroads. He will have to learn the game behind the game if he is going to join the ranks of the great.
Derrick has won his whole career. His high school teams won state championships. Unofficially, Memphis won the most games of any NCAA squad, ever, and Derrick was a couple of free throws away from a national championship. Derrick can win with his passing, his scoring, and his physical gifts. I also truly believe that when he gets on the court the question he is trying to answer is "What's the best play for the team, right now?" versus "What's the best play for me, right now?" He's humble to the point that he doesn't always seem to be there, mentally and physically, in interviews off the court. With his speed and handle, he could be Allen Iverson, if he wanted it. He could've forced things more as a rookie, taken more shots, gotten to the line and turned the ball over more, and averaged 20+ doing it, but he didn't, even though there were times when we wanted him to. In fact, one of his most impressive stats was his low turnover rate for a rookie point guard.
Derrick's been so good that he plays the game straight up. His speed gets him where he wants to go, so he goes there. When he sees the pass, he makes one. He plays for the shot, but rarely the foul. So far, playing this way has gotten him where he wants to go, up until the playoffs.
Against the Boston Celtics, Derrick played the same team seven games in a row. This was certainly the first time this had happened in his career. He experienced a disciplined team defense locking in on him, reacting to his strengths, taking him out of his comfort zone. He went up against Rajon Rondo 7 times, a cover who used his own set of gifts in both orthodox (pick and roll) and unorthodox (offensive rebounding) ways.
Derrick struggled. Rondo shredded his defense to pieces, and his strength (low turnovers) became a weakness (5 turnovers per game). Derrick gave it his best, and it wasn't enough. If Garnett had been healthy it probably wouldn't have been close.
Derrick failed. He came home much earlier than he has at any level in his career. He's had the whole summer to think about why and work towards next season.
Derrick has said his goal, every season, is to be the MVP. To get there he will have to learn ways of making space in the pick and roll, how to play two or three steps ahead of the action on the court. To learn that sometimes he needs to be more selfish. That defense is not about reacting to what your man does, but understanding what he is trying to do and frustrating those ambitions. That sometimes, as Dywane Wade knows so well, the shortest path to two points is not the basket but the foul line.
So this season, give Derrick more than he can bear. Push him to his breaking point. Watch him struggle, get knocked down and beaten up. Trust that he will keep working hard, and that with experience he will get stronger and overcome.
Bring on the Rondos and the Chris Pauls. By the end of the season Derrick should be ready for the playoffs. Another Boston series, and we may need ask the ghost of Milton to create some new words to explain what Derrick will do. Pandemonium indeed.