Derrick Rose: Déjà vu All Over Again?

Oct 20, 2014; Columbus, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose (1) drives past Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) at Value City Arena. Cleveland won the game 107-98. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 20, 2014; Columbus, OH, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose (1) drives past Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) at Value City Arena. Cleveland won the game 107-98. Mandatory Credit: Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports /

In his seventh preseason game, Derrick Rose exploded all over the Cleveland Cavaliers, scoring 30 points on 12-of-18 shooting, adding five rebounds, three assists and no turnovers.

It was easily his best game since … well … last preseason. Almost exactly a year earlier, on Oct. 18, 2013, he scored 32 on 9-of-15 shooting, with nine assists, four rebounds and two turnovers against the Indiana Pacers.

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In fact, that particular coincidence made it easy to draw an assumption: Rose’s preseason success is just a mirage until the “real games” start. After all, last season Rose took a precipitous plunge once the games counted in the standings.

In fact, statistically speaking, his 10 games resulted in even fewer win shares than his 2012-13 campaign when he never even took the court! He had minus-0.2 win shares when he went out for the season on a torn meniscus.

As the saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. And so, it’s understandable that people hesitate to get ecstatic over Rose’s increasingly impressive preseason performance.

There’s a lot of fallacy to that line of reasoning. When you’re dealing with a sample size of one, it’s easy to overdo a prediction. And while there’s this awful similarity that he’s had success in both endeavors to return, there’s also a difference in the manner in which that success has been achieved.

There is a commonality between the preseasons, but there are differences, too.

When you look at the differences, there are reasons to believe that this time Rose might not have the disaster once the regular season tips off.

Progression of the Preseason

First, there’s way the preseason progressed. Last year, Rose started off so-so, had a couple of great games, and then actually started to have a major decline before the regular season started. The thing is, it was disguised by his overall preseason averages and his early excellence.

Game Score is an individual game metric devised by John Hollinger. Floor Impact Counter (FIC) is a single-number metric developed by Chris Reina. They’re devised slightly differently and each have their flaws. However, if we’re comparing Rose’s game to game performance, those flaws are consistent, and ergo, are fine for revealing how his performance changed over the course of the preseason.

Since he averaged about 33 percent more minutes in 20133, I adjusted the numbers to per-36 minutes for the sake of comparison.

First let’s look at what happened in 2013. Here’s a chart of his performance, along with a polynomial (order -2) trendline which shows how Rose’s preseason developed last year.

Notice how Rose started slow, picked up and a couple of huge games, then fell off precipitously as the preseason drew to a close.

Now let’s look at this year:

Notice how the curve is going in the opposite direction. He started well, then had a bad game, and has been up and down, but overall he’s been gradually getting better. This is more what you’d expect to see with a player “shaking rust off.” His worst game last year was his last game of the preseason. His worst game this year was his second. His best game, currently, is his last. He looks like a player gradually returning to form.

Difference in Play

Let’s keep things in perspective here. We’re looking at a seven-game sample size both seasons. So, unless there’s a specific difference in how he was playing this year than last than he is this year.

It seemed to me that last year, Rose relied a lot on his jumper and there was actually some concern that he wasn’t doing as well getting to the rim. This year, it seemed he’d been getting to the rim more. For example, look at the Indiana game in 2013 and the Cleveland game this year, with the shot charts courtesy of the media site (account required).

The Pacers game, he had just three field goals inside. The Cavaliers game, he had eight.

So was that an anomaly or part of a larger trend? Here’s how his game-by-game performance shook out in 2013.

In most of the games, he was getting more points off his jumper than off his driving, which is fine if you’re Chris Paul, but not if you’re Derrick Rose. He’s not a great jump shooter. His bread and butter is his drive.

When his jumper stopped failing, he struggled more and more getting to the rim as opponents didn’t have to play him as tight at the perimeter. He didn’t have his timing and finish to make them pay for that.

Then he started forcing things, especially when the regular season started. His success in 2013 was fool’s gold because the sharp-shooting Rose was a bit of an anomaly, and a regression to the mean was just a matter of time.

And because of that, when things got “real” the “real Rose” wasn’t ready to respond. The rust hadn’t been removed, it had just been painted over. And the paint was peeling.

Now let’s look at what has happened this year.

So last year he was depending mostly on his jumper, and getting to the rim as an afterthought. But this year, he’s been playing more like the “real” Rose. He’s driving to the rim first, and taking the jumper when opponents back off of him.

Last year, he took .82 shots at the rim for every jumper. This year, that ratio is 1.06.

Last year, he played just shy of 200 minutes and attempted 38 shots inside. This year he’s played just shy of 150 and has taken 37.

You get the point. He’s much more aggressive now. This is the personality that won MVP. Yes, there is still a ways to go, but at least it’s the right “person” playing. At least he’s working off the rust and not painting over it.

Why It Matters

So why does this matter? Because this is who Rose is.

It’s not a matter of which style is preferable; it’s one of which style is him.

Last year, Rose looked phenomenal, but in many ways it looked like he was trying to show off all his new tools and tricks. He wasn’t trying to shake off the rust and be the player who won the MVP.

But this preseason, he has one huge advantage that he didn’t have last year. This year, he has the learning experience of last year to fall back on. As a result, he seems to be more inclined to shaking off the rust as his first priority, and then working in the new facets of his game. He’s not trying to be Chris Paul. He’s trying to be Derrick Rose with a Chris Paul twist.

There are some aspects to what he’s doing which are new. He’s playing smarter. Chiefly, there are times when he formerly would have forced shots that he previously wouldn’t. That’s why he has a very under-the-radar true shooting percentage of .610 this year.

So, when the regular season starts, the game speed is faster, and the competition is real, he’s more prepared for the shift. That’s not to say he’s not going to hit another speed bump when the regular season starts. But, there is something to indicate he’s further along in the “rust-shaking” process. Expect a better start to the regular season than last year.