Derrick Rose’s disappearance on Monday was unexcused and inexcusable: one of the NBA’s highest-paid players, a former MVP, left his teammates, coaches and organization hanging without so much as a text message or Tweet. The Knicks, who had lost seven of their last eight, badly needed a win against the lowly Pelicans; instead, they suffered an unsightly loss on the court and then spent postgame trying to contain the damage caused by their lost point guard.
By Tuesday, Rose, who was benched down the stretch of recent games in favor of a former D-Leaguer, was back at practice without a clear explanation for his ghosting, saying only that he had abruptly returned to Chicago for family reasons. In turn, the Knicks fined Rose for his no-show—the bare minimum punishment given these highly unusual circumstances—and announced that he would return to the starting lineup against the Sixers on Wednesday. President Phil Jackson, quick to generate headlines for the wrong reasons this season, has yet to issue a statement or take questions from the Knicks media on the Rose affair.
What is there, really, for Jackson to say? Other than to admit that the last 24 hours beautifully distill the depths of his poor decision-making last summer. Jackson shouldn’t have traded for an injury-ravaged, poor shooting, matador of a point guard who was embroiled in legal drama and entering a contract year. He shouldn’t have saddled new coach Jeff Hornacek, who was fresh off a locker room revolt in Phoenix, with a core composed of players pulling into completely opposite directions. And he definitely shouldn’t have counted on Joakim Noah to reclaim his past form, especially at a $72 million price tag. Jackson’s entire summer should have been conducted with the purpose of fast-tracking Kristaps Porzingis’s long-term development, and it very clearly wasn’t.
But those things were clear back then. Tuesday wasn’t: Jackson, through haphazard management, has constructed a reality in which he really has no choice but to welcome back Rose with open arms and a slap on the wrist.
Yes, this is the purest sign of how depressing Jackson’s Knicks have become: they actually need Rose.
For virtually any other NBA team, Rose wouldn’t be worth the money or the headaches, even though he’s enjoyed a mild “resurgence” and sustained reasonably good health this season. Rose has the worst Real Plus-Minus, by far, among players who are earning $20 million and have logged at least 500 minutes this season. Rose is one of the league’s least-efficient high-volume shooters: Phoenix’s Devin Booker is the only player averaging at least 15 shots with a lower True Shooting Percentage. And he ranks among the league’s worst point guards by the major defensive metrics, a key contributing factor to New York’s bottom-five defense.
Jackson should have expected all of these things as they aren’t new developments. Even the Bulls, led by the much-maligned duo of Gar Forman and John Paxson, realized that trading Rose would be addition by subtraction. Sure enough, despite the Rajon Rondo quagmire, Chicago has improved its efficiency ranking on both offense and defense now that it’s no longer dragged down by Rose’s steady diet of clanking jumpers and glaring lack of lateral mobility.
As bad as the Knicks are with Rose, though, they’ve been even worse without him. Unfortunately, Brandon Jennings, Rose’s primary back-up, suffers from many of the same basketball sins: he’s a horribly inefficient shooter, he puts up little defensive resistance at the point of attack, and his moments of exciting play don’t translate to consistent, quality offense. Indeed, New York’s offensive rating falls off a cliff when Jennings replaces Rose, dropping from 108.1 (a top-10 mark) to 101.7 (a bottom-five mark). This trend holds true when Jennings steps in for Rose to play with New York’s preferred starters, as the Knicks’ offensive rating drops from 103.8 to 95.2.
Looking at those numbers, it’s no wonder Hornacek has found himself searching for answers and turning to Ron Baker out of desperation. Opting for an undrafted rookie guard from Wichita State over Rose and Jennings is a loud cry for help, a message to Jackson that a random minimum-salaried, high-energy worker can be, at times, a better fit than his pair of shoot-first, dribble-pounding turnstiles.
Jackson remains stuck in the same predicament that faced him when he was hired in 2014: he needs a true starting-caliber point guard and he lacks the assets required to get one. There’s an even greater urgency now, though, because Porzingis’s star is rising more quickly than anticipated (and in spite of the dysfunction around him). Rose's arrival was intended to buy Jackson some time, but instead it's repeatedly blown up in his face.
Jackson will be hard-pressed to trade Rose for an upgrade—or for anything of value, really—before the deadline. His roster is bereft of internal candidates for promotion, hamstrung by Noah’s ludicrous contract and Anthony’s no-trade clause, and largely lacking in desirable trade pieces that could be packaged together for a quality floor general. This summer’s class of free-agent point guards, aside from the untouchable Stephen Curry, is quite weak at the top. Maybe Porzingis can just pass the ball to himself for a few years until Jackson sorts this all out.
For now, one feels for Hornacek, who in a moment of sheer honesty admitted after a recent loss to the Magic that “maybe we’re just not capable” of playing good defense. The coach, on his second chance after a messy end in Phoenix, is faced with so many difficult tasks. He must keep Anthony, who already has a league-leading three ejections this season, engaged. He must find a way to give Porzingis as much responsibility as he can handle. And he must turn again to Rose, despite the many obvious difficulties, because there are no real alternatives. And he must do all of that without cover from Jackson, who left him to stumble through questions after New York’s loss on Monday and again after Tuesday’s practice.
Say this for Rose after his inexplicable no-show: at least he resurfaced and faced the cameras. Jackson, meanwhile, is still hiding from the fallout of his own poor decisions.