By Mike McGraw
As Tom Thibodeau described it, Derrick Rose is essentially one step away from returning to game action.
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"He's just doing a little bit more in practice each day, but he still hasn't taken on contact," Thibodeau said Tuesday at the Berto Center. "That will be the next thing. We're not quite there yet. He's doing well. He's going through most of the practice."
How long this final step will take is anyone's guess. But it's probably safe to say this part of the recovery process requires some careful planning.
When recovery was the primary focus, it was easy for Rose and the Bulls to stay on the same page. The question now is whether Rose will stick with the cautious approach.
Roughly 8½ months have passed since Rose tore the ACL in his left knee in the playoffs against Philadelphia. New York's Iman Shumpert, who suffered the same injury on the same day, is expected to return Thursday when the Knicks play Detroit in London.
Rose hasn't spoken to the media since the start of training camp. He's out on the court with his teammates during practice now, going on the road trips. He has to be getting anxious.
"What you see, that's Derrick," Thibodeau said. "He's very coachable in all areas. There's high maintenance, low maintenance and no maintenance. He's no maintenance.
"Whatever you ask him to do, he does. He follows the plan. He's worked extremely hard. He understands what he has to go through. He's doing his part."
Longtime Bulls fans can recall a similar circumstance when a return from an injury didn't go smoothly. After breaking his foot early in his second NBA season, Michael Jordan wanted to come back late in the year. The Bulls felt he should wait until the following season.
Jordan got his way, led the Bulls to a playoff spot, then scored an NBA playoff record 63 points against Boston. The playoff run lasted just three games, but the foot injury was never a problem again.
That spat is sometimes blamed for the poor relationship between Jordan and longtime general manager Jerry Krause.
Rose isn't Jordan, but he is a competitor. The Bulls and team doctors have planned to use a cautious approach all along -- a return in late February or early March, followed by an effort to limit the stress on Rose and allow him to use the last part of this season to regain his confidence.
What if Rose thinks he's ready sooner? What if he looks at a questionable field of Eastern Conference contenders and asks to unleash his full powers for a playoff run?
At this point, those are hypothetical situations.
"We're not worried about that," Thibodeau said of the return plan. "There's been constant communication between Derrick and the doctors. It's not going to be a problem."
One advantage the Bulls have is they've put it in the hands of the doctors. Drs. Brian Cole and Kathy Weber work closely with the team and probably have earned a decent amount of trust with players like Rose. Cole performed the surgery last May.
There are good reasons to be cautious.
Minnesota's Ricky Rubio, who tore his ACL and MCL last March, returned to game action roughly nine months and one week after suffering the injury. He already has had problems, sitting out with a sore back that could be a result of compensating for the knee.
Even if Shumpert's return goes well, he plays a much different role for the Knicks, a defensive stopper off the bench. He's a great athlete but won't be asked to carry a team like Rose has done.
Even Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, perhaps the greatest torn ACL (and MCL) patient of all time, played just once a week. Rose needs to do a little more when he comes back.
The most likely scenario is Cole and Weber will pick a return date, and everyone else will comply. That could be after the all-star break, but it might be sooner.
The Bulls have some open dates for practice in early February, and if Rose returned on, say, Feb. 11 vs. San Antonio, he could use the all-star break to evaluate where he's at.
The bottom line is, it's still about patience right now.