This summer's edition of the World Cup promises to be enthralling, sure, but the competition itself is secondary to the main storyline - the return of Derrick Rose.
The Chicago Bulls former MVP has played exactly 10 games in the last two seasons. That's 67 less than the esteemed Hollis Thompson, or 186 fewer than LeBron James if you count the playoffs.
Rose suffered two devastating knee injuries in the last two calendar years. His 2012-13 season was lost, and although the Bulls medically cleared him to play, Rose didn't.
Ten games into his comeback last season, Rose tore his meniscus and the 2013-14 campaign vanished. In the limited amount of time we saw Rose, he appeared tentative and far from the player who dominated the league at the point guard position.
That's one of the many reasons why the microscope is firmly entrenched on Rose during his stint with USA Basketball. We need to know that not only is he ready, but we need to see that he's back to his old self. No one wants the timid '13-14 version.
First, in order to see that, the knee needs to hold up. That was the main concern after the first US World Cup practice.
"It's good. There is no pain. That's the past," Rose said after the first run- through.
The next hurdle was could Rose sustain his play for two straight days?
"I think he kept it at the same. It was at a high level yesterday," noted USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. "For him to play at that level and then play at it again, shows that he has worked real hard. We are very, very pleased. Coming into the camp, you don't know. He has responded."
Coach K is correct, we don't know what Rose we are getting. Truth is, Rose earned the questions by not returning during the 2012-13 season, despite being cleared by Chicago's doctors, and because he looked more scared than a kid breaking curfew when he did actually play.
This isn't to question Rose's commitment. Some have and he opened himself to the questions by not playing, especially when the Bulls were down point guard Kirk Hinrich in the 2013 postseason and Nate Robinson was throwing up in a bucket on the bench. Rose wanted to feel completely ready to play. It's a dangerous notion to question a player's injuries.
The light shines brighter on Rose at this moment because of the ever-shifting balance in the Eastern Conference. Most speculate that the Bulls, who signed Pau Gasol in the offseason, could be a power in the East, assuming Rose returns healthy.
The Cleveland Cavaliers brought back James. The Indiana Pacers will take a dip with the loss of Lance Stephenson. The Miami Heat won't be the same. The Atlantic Division has no real team that could make the NBA Finals.
That makes the Bulls a premiere power. (Full disclosure, with Kevin Love still a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Bulls are my choice as favorite.)
A championship appearance is realistic for Chicago, but it's predicated on Rose. People forgot what a dominant force Rose is. During his four healthy seasons, he averaged 20.9 ppg and 8.7 apg. Those numbers are sensational and occurred during the advent of the point-guard-dominated NBA.
Chicago was a No. 1 seed twice during Rose's run, including the 2010-11 season when Rose won the MVP award. The 2014-15 incarnation will be just as good. Joakim Noah emerged as an elite center. Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson aren't role players, they're a pair of stud defensive aces with well above-average offensive games. Gasol may still have a lot in the tank, it's unclear. He toiled in a system under Mike D'Antoni that never came close to maximizing his skills.
And Tom Thibodeau is a brilliant coach. He's got a front-row seat to Rose's rebuild being one of Krzyzewski's assistants this summer.
There were murmurs the Bulls didn't want Rose to compete in the World Cup. Who could blame them? Rose medical chart reads longer than a Proust piece, but this is the best thing for Rose.
First, it's a great way to get Rose reacclimated with USA Basketball. He's been easy to forget since he hasn't been around, but Coach K should have Rose in mind for the Rio Games in 2016.
Perhaps most importantly for Rose and the Bulls, there's no better way to gauge where he is in his recovery than by practicing with this group in the summer.
Rose will be matched up in practice against Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving and John Wall. That quartet represents the four best young point guards in the NBA. Chasing them around and trying to beat them off the dribble will better prepare him for the regular season, when it's not just those four, but Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Tony Parker.
"This will knock the rust off for a good year," said Rose.
Problem is, Rose needs to knock off two years worth of rust. It won't all happen in one summer practice session with USA Basketball. (With his knee injuries and a glut of point guards, Rose may not make the team.)
Whether or not Rose makes the squad is immaterial. The bigger picture lies ahead. Getting him on the court as the old Derrick Rose, that's the goal.
- With Love and Blake Griffin bowing out of action, the USA team is by no means a shoo-in for gold at the World Cup. The core group of Kevin Durant, James Harden, Paul George, Curry and Anthony Davis are formidable, but there is a lack of depth up front. Andre Drummond and maybe DeMarcus Cousins both make the team and frontcourt play isn't what wins in these international competitions. Wing play does. I'd make the US the favorite, but beating Spain in Spain is going to be tough, especially considering the big men of Spain are the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka.
- Donald Sterling lost his case, meaning Steve Ballmer should be the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers by Aug. 15. It's almost over everyone. Hang in.
- ESPN.com reported the Philadelphia 76ers are fighting the changes to the NBA's lottery system, which would give the bottom five or six teams equal chances for the No. 1 pick. The change could happen next year. The Sixers built a five-year plan that would get swept out from under them at the end of year two. I understand the Sixers' gripe here. It's changing the rules midstream. At least midstream in terms of their course.
- Michele Roberts was named executive director of the NBA Players Association. She is the first female to head a North American sports union. That's a celebration unto itself, but the fact that so many players were in attendance for the meetings is great. This current crop of members, let alone star members, seem to be engaged in the process.
- Movie moment - I'm still not sure I understand how the guys committed their robberies in any of the "Ocean" movies.
- TV moment - I used to believe that bad reality television signified the end of life as we know it. While still not a fan, the fact that a "Sharknado 2" will be on one of my television's channels on Wednesday night does not leave me optimistic about the world my child will inhabit. I'm all for campy entertainment, actually. Plus, I love when new words are created.