The splashy name missing from action in Tuesday night’s sold-out matchup between the Knicks and Lakers was certainly LeBron James, suspended for his part in Sunday’s melee in Detroit. But for the Knicks, the biggest concern might have been the absence of Derrick Rose.
The absence of James might have broken hearts at TNT, which was broadcasting the game to the nation, and to the fans who crowded into the Garden in Laker jerseys to see the star in his only appearance in New York this season. But for the concern of the Knicks where they are right now, playing without Rose is a problem. Unlike the Lakers, they have no Anthony Davis and Carmelo Anthony to turn to.
"Yeah, well you plan for everything," Knicks coach Thibodeau said. "You plan on [James] being there. They have a lot of weapons if he doesn’t play. So you have to be ready for everyone. That’s sort of the nature of the league now, the way everything is. You go into the game and you think about all the possibilities and you realize that whether it’s suspension, illness, whatever it might be. You have to adapt quickly and you have to be ready for everyone."
Rose was scratched from the lineup Tuesday with a sprained right ankle, the first game he has missed this season. And for a team struggling for any semblance of consistency this season Rose has been the comfortable and reliable direction that Tom Thibodeau could turn to every night.
While Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier have struggled to acclimate themselves as newcomers to the starting lineup and RJ Barrett has endured wild offensive swings, any time the Knicks starters have struggled Thibodeau has turned to the bench and sent in his longtime accomplice.
Rose is not a starter, but to this point in the season he has had the biggest impact on their play with the Knicks 23.7 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor than without — the highest number on the roster. For comparison, Walker is a minus-25.6 points per 100 — the worst number of any player on the roster who has played at least 20 minutes this season.
It’s not a new phenomenon. After Rose joined the Knicks in a midseason trade last season, the team exceeded expectations and earned the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. But the Knicks were just 5-6 in games Rose sat last season. Thibodeau said that Rose’s injury is a day-to-day problem, not expected to linger.
Still, the insurance that Rose provides has been the one thing that Thibodeau and the Knicks can count on this season.
"I think that’s the challenge for every team going into every season," Thibodeau said. "There’s always going to be new players on every team. And then it’s how quickly can you adapt. That’s everyone’s challenge. But I’m worried about us."
Both the Knicks and Lakers have been left trying to sort out their growing pains this season.
"They’re trying to figure out just like we are," Julius Randle said. "That’s the league. This is probably the most balanced I’ve seen the league since I’ve been in it. It’s my eighth year. I haven’t seen the league this balanced where it’s competitive every single night. Really not any nights off honestly. So yeah this is definitely the most competitive. Sometimes they look great, sometimes they look bad. Like I said, it’s just the league, they’re trying to figure it out and get on a roll like we are."