A small mid-air collision with Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, on par with a chest bump you might receive at a football game by the drunk fan painted in the team's colors, was all it took for Derrick Rose to leave the game due to back spasms ten minutes into the first quarter on Tuesday. He, along with Carmelo Anthony (bruised shoulder), sat out Thursday's game against the powerhouse Warriors as well.
And while it's fair to argue that resting older, more injury prone players is pragmatic in the regular season when it's during a game unlikely to be won, Thursday's effort by the Knicks highlighted some issues with this that could become serious problems if they hope to compete in the playoffs.
The good news is, Derrick Rose is creeping back to near-All Star form. He is currently third on the Knicks in scoring (16.4 ppg) and second in assists (4.4 apg), in addition to having his most efficient season since his second year in shots taken at the rim. His play at the point guard has genuinely revitalized what had long been considered to be New York's weakest position.
The bad news is Derrick Rose is what we all thought he was at the start of the season: an extremely talented and athletically gifted player whose history of injury has kept him out of regular circulation since 2011. This two-game benching comes just after he sat out another two games in a row leading up to playing a road game against the Lakers recently.
It's worth noting that Rose put up a very efficient 25 points against the Lakers, scoring on 12 of his 16 shots. When he does play, not only do his personal contributions to the box score stand out, but his effect on the Knicks offense as a whole are readily apparent. Unfortunately, this is also reflected when he rides the bench.
The Knicks are scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions when Rose plays compared to 98.2 points when he sits. Rose's frantic and constant drives to the hoop, in addition to being a key part of Rose's own skill set (9.4 drives per game, 14th-highest in the league) is often the engine that drives the Knicks offense. Rose's ability to drive and finish at the rim demands defensive attention, but covering him with a second man leaves one of Anthony, Porzingis or Lee, all offensively talented in their own right, open.
But you can't start the car if the guy with the keys to it isn't there. His temporary replacement in the starting lineup, Brandon Jennings, is no slouch either. So far this year he has proved himself to be a very capable if occasionally baffling leader of the bench, whose emotional intensity during games have inspired callbacks to the Mason/Stark years. His ability to find teammates for buckets is easily his best attribute; even though he averages around 23 minutes per game, he leads the team in assists (5.2 apg).
Jennings can get exposed real quick when playing in a starter's role, however. His over-dribbling, streetball style of play may work well to confound bench players, but his offensive output when starting against Golden State was limited by the Warrior's superior defenders (4-13 FG, 0-2 3PT, 2-4 FT. 6 assists). His shooting against Cleveland was a little better (16 points from 6 out of 13 attempts), though that could be more to do with being guarded by Klay Thompson instead of Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith.
The problem compounds when you take into account who takes Jennings' minutes when he is thrust into starting, which so far has been Sasha Vujacic and Ron Baker. Sasha catches some Internet heat for being "useless," some of which I feel is unjustified (offensively, he's shown himself to be a high IQ player who understands the value of spacing and can hit three's at a decent clip. Defensively, he's washed like rolling papers left in jeans pockets), but he can't really be played for much more than five minutes. Baker has shown potential as a rookie, but he just hasn't had the reps yet to fully take the reins of the backup point.
So what does New York do if and when Rose has another serious injury? His impact on the Knicks offense can be felt beyond the points he provides, and his would-be replacements present problems in of themselves. There have been no talks of any potential free agency signings and it seems unlikely the Knicks would trade any potential assets to truly have a crack at competing this year. Not that they have many assets to trade anyway.
The most likely course of action, as Phil Jackson has preached during his Knicks tenure, will be to prioritize development over winning this year. Ron Baker, with gradual increases in playing time, could certainly blossom into a fundamentally-sound bench guard. Brandon Jennings has shown enough flashes of brilliance in his brief time as the Knicks' 6th man that you could entertain the thought of him growing into the role of the grizzled, veteran bench leader. That is, if the price is right; New York currently has him on an absurd 1-year, $5 million deal. He's certainly in a position to demand more next year.
No pun intended.