The Knicks' Derrick Rose drives to the basket as the Rockets'...

The Knicks' Derrick Rose drives to the basket as the Rockets' Eric Gordon defends during the first half of a game on Dec. 16, 2021, in Houston.  Credit: AP/David J. Phillip

After the Knicks went into the All-Star break with the sort of dysfunction and struggles that have marked the franchise for two decades, Tom Thibodeau sat for his media session and in a little more than nine minutes went through all of the stages of grief.

With the losses piling up, internal finger-pointing being reported and no end in sight, Thibodeau kept up a brave face. But while he could say that players must earn their time on the floor and he could preach togetherness, it was hard to imagine a way that his bold talk could translate into any sort of face-saving success for the Knicks.

"Well, obviously, we’d like to be doing better than we are," Thibodeau said. "There’s still time. Come in, get a chance to get your breath, take a hard look at where we are, and then start with themselves. Everyone start with themselves, what can we do better individually and then bring it to the group and get the spirit of the team together. And that’s got to be the primary focus. The spirit of the team. And that’s on both ends of the floor."

Is there a way? With the trade deadline passed, a 25-34 record, 13 losses in the last 16 games and the fourth most-difficult schedule ahead in the final 23 games, it might seem unlikely. But the best chance for the Knicks to avoid the continued path to the draft lottery might lie with the return of Derrick Rose.

Rose had 18 points and seven assists on Dec. 12 and 15 points and six assists on Dec. 14. He has been sidelined since Dec. 16, when the Knicks won to move to 13-16, and had surgery on his right ankle on Dec. 22. After a brief uptick in which the Knicks reached 22-21, they have gone into a free fall.

In the last seven games, the Knicks have blown leads of 21, 23 and 28 points in losses to the Lakers, Trail Blazers and Nets.

Rose, with a long history with Thibodeau through their times in Chicago and Minnesota, turned out to be the steadying force the Knicks needed last season after he was acquired from the Pistons in February.

Now they need something or someone to turn the season around quickly. RJ Barrett is expected back after missing the last four games with a sprained left ankle. Rose hasn't done contact drills but he has been doing on-court work and could be back when the Knicks return to action next Friday against Miami.

"When you look at Derrick when he’s on the floor and you look at the plus-minus of the players, he impacts it in a very positive way," Thibodeau said. "And he’s always been that way. Because he gives you the transition game, he gives you the pick-and-roll game, he can play on the ball, he can play off the ball, so it adds a lot to our team."

Rose stabilized the second unit when he arrived last season and moved into the starting lineup in the postseason. Kemba Walker has struggled in his starting role, and the plan to have the two veterans split the minutes has not worked out because of injuries, illness and Walker’s benching earlier in the season. Immanuel Quickley has struggled with his shooting and leading the team on the floor, emphasizing the need for Rose’s leadership.

Taj Gibson, who has been with Rose and Thibodeau through these three career stops, believes that Rose’s impact will come not only on the court but in the locker room.

"I don’t think it’s more physical," Gibson said. "I think it’s more having him out there with us. It’s having that extra veteran that’s been through the ups and downs, been through the grind, to have some poise and hold us down at times. We have just been fighting, we have a lot of injuries to blame and make up any kind of excuse you want, but having him out there would help the situation a little more, but we don’t want to put any pressure on him. At the end of the day, it’s a whole group, whole coaching staff, and we have to figure it out."