Nine years ago, the Sacramento Kings had all the pieces in line to win a championship. The Kings were humbled from a devastating seven game series with the Lakers a year ago, and had made all efforts to make their team as title-worthy as possible.
They improved their defense to one of the top units in the NBA. They had six players average nine points per game or more and five players averaged three assists or more. They'd stacked up their bench with Jim Jackson and Keon Clark to run ten deep along with perennial sixth man candidate Bobby Jackson, and plugged in when starters like Mike Bibby and Chris Webber got injured during the regular season. They got great balance from their starters, and played perfect team basketball both offensively and defensively.
It was again Webber setting the table. While Doug Christie locked down defensively and Mike Bibby became more of a distributor and Peja Stojakovic pulled up in delayed transition for a corner three and Vlade Divac was executing perfect high post passes, Webber was the one controlling the game from all spots on the floor with his floor generalship. C-Webb had embraced his leadership role and was doing everything to keep Sacramento ahead of the pack. Webber led the Kings in scoring, rebounding, assists, and was second on the team in blocks and steals. It wasn't a transcendent season, but it was the type of stewardship Sacramento needed to ready themselves for that chase for the crown.
After a quick dismantling of the Jazz, it looked like the Kings were on their way to fulfilling their destiny. They knocked around the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 to earn the road split, but then had trouble stopping anyone in Game 2. It looked like it would just be one of those regular 1-1 splits.
Then Webber went running for a loose ball under the basket.
Then Webber was crumbled on the ground, his back to the camera, his face leaning on the floor.
And then just like that, poof, it was gone.
The Kings were never the same. Without pre-injury Webber, their interior defense crumbled, and the Mavs ran them off the court in seven games. They maintained their offensive up-tempo personality for another year and seemed poised for one more title run, but when C-Webb came back he slowed his team down and they stumbled to the finish and another heartbreaking second round exit. C-Webb's injury took away Sacramento's defense, and his return stole their offense.
One of the most exciting eras of NBA basketball drew to a close. The Kings have never been the same since.
That's why the Derrick Rose injury was so tough to digest for many NBA fans. Having a good player like Ricky Rubio go down at the sunrise of his career is one thing. Rubio will be back and ready to lead the charge next season, and it wasn't like his team was going to be hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy anytime soon
But Rose crumpling to the round just as he was ready to lead a championship favorite to the Promised Land makes us feel like we got robbed of something. Rose has always been injury-prone (he was out most of the season), but the reason he's so injury-prone is the same reason he's so dangerous. His steps are so unnatural, so explosive, so athletically controlled that it's not only tough for a defense to handle. It's tough for Rose himself to keep his body from flying in a hundred different places.
It always felt like we were battling time with Rose, just like we battled time with Webber. C-Webb had a long injury sheet, as it sometimes felt like his limber frame didn't know what to do with the incredible athleticism he possessed in spades (particularly those thin legs, which probably just gave out from the raw basketball Webber gave us all for nearly a decade). Rose seemed more controlled, but his game is so dependent on mashing those feet into the ground and driving to the basket with those vicious steps.
The good news for Rose is that he's young, and ACL injuries are far easier to recover from now than they were during Webber's time. There should be more times, especially considering the core around him still tends toward the young side. The defense isn't going to get any easier to deal with, and in fact might get harder now that the Bulls will probably have to rely more heavily on that side of the ball to succeed. There are also ample replacements in C.J. Watson and John Lucas to shoulder the load at the point guard spot and try and keep the title hunt going.
The bad news is just like the Webber injury, the Bulls will be robbed of their best offensive option down the stretch, meaning all you have to do is dig in and force them to isolate and shoot tough jumpers. Chicago may be one of the best passing teams in the NBA, but eventually someone is going to have to shoot. If we were to randomly select ten Bulls fans and ask them who the go-to guy in crunchtime is now, you might get ten different answers. Not at all a promising sign for a team that'll probably need to topple Boston and Miami in two consecutive rounds.
And the really bad news? No one knows what type of player Rose will come back as. Will he still be that dazzling crossover wizard with a quick first step? Can he sweep people off his feet with his twisting and turning and dancing to the basket? Or will he have to adjust himself to play a whole new type of basketball? And how long will it take for us to see that Derrick Rose?
Chris Webber never really returned to us, and Kings fans have been left pondering hypotheticals ever since. We can only hope Derrick Rose finds his way back and Bulls fans never have to deal with that eternal pain.