The Man Who Holds the Key to the East Over the Next 3 Years? Derrick Rose

They say the man is done, that he’s mentally broken, that he won’t ever be the same and that Chicago should cut its ties and be done with him. They say he’s washed up and maybe…maybe he should just hang ’em up. Yeah, you hear the rumors, even if most first surface among angry anonymous social media accounts. The fact is they’re there. He isn’t the man he used to be and probably never will be again. Too much time passed. The world’s most irrecoverable loss isn’t honor. It isn’t virtue or body or skill. It’s time. You can never get it back.

Yet despite all of that, even though we already saw the only MVP award he will likely ever win, the most important player in the NBA’s Eastern Conference over the next three years will be Derrick Rose.

It’s not LeBron James, even though he’s still the conference’s best player on arguably the best team. We know who James is and even with some uncertainty creeping in this year regarding the future of Kevin Love — will he exercise his nearly $17 million player option this summer? — LeBron is a lock. We know what he’ll do and what impact he’ll have. As long as he’s in Cleveland, the Cavs will be a force, combining star power with born again, ring-chasing veterans. (Hello, J.R. Smith.) Atlanta? It’s hard to find anyone who takes them seriously as a multi-year contender, considering this year feels like lightning in a bottle. John Wall? The Wizards haven’t taken the leap and it’s hard to see how it happens unless Bradley Beal catches some of what Klay Thompson‘s been drinking. Toronto? A solid team with solid players. Nothing more.

But Rose…it’s not just his sneakers that still matter, selling $32 million in 2014. It’s that he’s everything Chicago is lacking. This year, between injuries to Rose, as well as defensive stalwarts Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, and Taj Gibson, the Bulls have had to give more playing time to weaker defensive players in an attempt to spur the offense. It hasn’t exactly worked. While ranking 10th in offensive efficiency, Chicago is in the bottom half of the league in both effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage. And on the other end, the Bulls have become a mediocre defensive team after finishing in the top five in defensive efficiency every year with Tom Thibodeau.

Rose brings balance. He brings late-game playmaking. He takes pressure away from Butler, opens up Pau Gasol to play the way he wants to. Rose solidifies the backcourt. And he brings hope. Sometimes that’s all you ever need.

There will surely be changes in the Windy City this offseason. There’s a good chance Thibodeau doesn’t return and with a max contract coming for Butler, not only will the lineup shuffle but so will the hierarchy. Now an All-Star, you could argue this is Butler’s team, even if it’s Rose who holds the most importance. It’s not just that he’s the point guard. He IS Chicago, a Chicago kid who got the chance to stay at home and win one for the city. When news broke earlier this year that Rose had torn the meniscus in his right knee, it felt like a funeral. No other city has that type of relationship with a star athlete. You can’t fake it or manufacture it. It’s there. It’s why Rose once cried at his own sneaker launch. It’s why fans were so frustrated with his return timetables. It’s why even now, even after three major surgeries, the love is still there. It’s why even after one playoff game — incredibly, Rose has played in just ONE PLAYOFF GAME since winning the NBA’s 2011 MVP — Rose will get as many chances as he wants. It’s all real.

This year, Rose was averaging 18.4 points and 5.0 assists, some of the lowest numbers of his career. Once a devastating midrange shooter, the 6-3 guard was shooting 5.5 three-pointers per game, his shooting percentage drifting all the way down to 40.7 percent. Yet just his presence alone was enough. The Bulls were 29-17 in the games he suited up in, and most believed they were on the cusp of a late-season rally that would’ve had them fighting with Cleveland right now for the conference’s No. 2 seed.

Rose wasn’t an MVP candidate anymore. On most nights, he wasn’t even an All-Star. He went from doing a lot of this Derrick Rose dunks on Knicks

to some of this: Derrick Rose layup John Wall

But forget the highlights — just being there might’ve been enough. He solidified everything for the team best equipped to handle LeBron’s Cavaliers over the next 2-3 seasons. When he’s not there? Chicago just doesn’t have enough.

Do I think Chicago will ever win a championship with this current team? I doubt it. I didn’t think they were going to win a title even before Rose’s myriad of injuries. When was the last time a team won a championship leaning so heavily on a scoring/slashing/athletic point guard who was under 6-5? Isiah Thomas and the Bad Boys? That was 25 years ago. Yet if they have any chance at all, it’s with Rose in the lineup. With Rose, everything is different. With Rose, time won’t feel like it’s been lost. And that alone makes him the conference’s most important player.

Follow Sean on Twitter at @seanesweeney