DEERFIELD – The next time he suits up for a game, there's a good chance Derrick Rose will actually be in a uniform and not in a jacket and slacks.
That moment can't come soon enough for the Bulls.
They got through an entire season without their superstar and kept picking themselves up every time they were knocked down, until the Miami Heat beat them, 4-1, in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli and Nazr Mohammed have expiring contracts, and the team figures to exercise its $1 million buyout on Richard Hamilton.
Coach Tom Thibodeau also did not rule out the possibility of foot surgery for Joakim Noah, and Kirk Hinrich's badly bruised left calf is a concern.
But any talk about the future starts with one player – the guy who wears No. 1.
Rose sat out all season after knee surgery, and his recovery remains the biggest story surrounding this team. He took a lot of public criticism from fans who wondered why he wasn't back on the court.
"He looked good [in scrimmages], but the big thing was he didn't have the comfort level that he needed to play," Thibodeau said Thursday after exit interviews. "He wanted very badly to be out there. And he made a good decision, I think.
"We told him from the beginning, 'We want you to be completely comfortable before you get out there.' He wasn't swayed by anybody, other than doing what he thought was right. He put a lot of work into his rehab, never quite got to the point where he felt comfortable enough to get out there and play. He did the right thing, and now he has the whole summer to build more confidence and we'll move forward from there."
Rose and Noah stayed in Florida after Wednesday's season-ending loss and were not available for comment.
Thibodeau said he's confident Rose will be a dominant player again, and if that happens, maybe the season-long soap opera that surrounded his recovery from a torn ACL in his left knee will finally fade.
It's been hovering over the team since Rose crumbled to the court in the playoff opener against Philadelphia last year, sending the top-seeded Bulls toward a first-round exit. Yet, the Bulls still managed to claw their way to 45 wins and the second round this season despite the absence of the 2011 MVP and a long list of injuries and illnesses.
"The Derrick part, we had an opportunity to prepare for," Thibodeau said. "Would he miss the whole year? We knew that was a possibility. You hope for the best, you plan for the worst. There were a number of other injuries that we had to deal with. I just love the fight in the team."
Just about every key player missed time during the regular season, and the ailments kept piling up during the playoffs.
There was Noah essentially playing on one leg because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
There was Hinrich badly bruising his left calf and missing the final eight games.
There was Luol Deng undergoing a spinal tap to rule out meningitis and missing the last seven games.
Robinson gave the Bulls a big lift in the playoffs, scoring 34 in a triple-overtime win in Game 4 against Brooklyn, playing through the flu later in that series and shaking off a scoreless nightmare in Game 4 against Miami to score 21 in the season-ending loss.
Through it all, Rose remained sidelined except for hoisting jumpers and throwing down dunks before games.
Asked if the Rose situation was a distraction, Taj Gibson said no.
"I just think that it was more aggravating," Gibson said. "Every day, you're just talking about Derrick's injury. Just let him recover first. It's already hard enough, knowing you just hurt yourself at a pivotal time, when you're trying to compete for a championship. Then, you've got to come back and you've got to have the whole world asking your teammates about you, basically. That's got to be one of the most frustrating things. Nobody can tell you about yourself but yourself."
It wasn't just the fact that Rose remained sidelined while his teammates played through injuries. The hype surrounding his recovery started building soon after he went down. Adidas detailed his progress in a series of videos titled "The Return," But Rose mostly stayed in the background, providing few updates on his recovery.
That changed with a series of interviews in February in which he said he just might sit out the entire season. Then his older brother Reggie ripped the Bulls in an interview with ESPNChicago.com, saying the decision to stand pat at the trade deadline could be a "big factor" in whether Derrick returned. That fueled speculation of a rift with the Bulls.
To the end, Rose and the Bulls publicly left the door open for a return at some point, but it never happened. So the wait continues, and the Bulls will monitor his training in California and Chicago.
There are other issues to address.
Asked if Noah will have surgery, Thibodeau said, "That hasn't been determined. Obviously, we'd like to avoid the surgery."
He did say Noah has "responded a lot better" lately. Thibodeau also said Deng is feeling better.
As for Hinrich, will he need surgery? Thibodeau said the MRI "didn't reveal anything else," but the veteran guard was unable to run and jump.
With Rose and Hinrich back next year and Marquis Teague in the mix, there might not be much room for Robinson. He can probably get more money and a bigger role on the open market, and the same might be true for Belinelli.
"I know it's probably limited space for me, but we'll see how it goes," Robinson said. "I'll talk to my agent and stuff like that and figure out what's the best plan for me. ... I love this team, I love these guys and if I could stay here, it would be wonderful."