Derrick Rose Credit: Bill Moore

At 24-27 before hosting the Memphis Grizzlies and their spectacular 22-year-old franchise altering point guard Ja Morant last night (Wednesday) at Madison Square Garden, ahead of a five-game, 10-day Western Conference road trip beginning this Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Knicks sat 11th in the East, one-half game behind the 24-26 Atlanta Hawks.

Their record and other metrics are indicators the Knicks are not a bona fide playoff contender as they were last season, when Tom Thibodeau won Coach of the Year honors in his first season as the franchise’s head coach. Thibodeau squeezed every ounce of talent and effort out of a group that went 41-31 in the abridged 72-game season and finished as the No. 4 seed in the East.

But their athletic weaknesses were subsequently exposed in the first round of the playoffs by the Hawks, as the Knicks were thoroughly beaten by their electrifying point guard Trae Young and a mix of young, versatile players and solid veterans, losing the series 4-1. The Knicks’ best player over those five games was unquestionably Derrick Rose.

Rarely does a day pass that Knick fans don’t dwell on the 2019 NBA draft lottery, when their team entered with the NBA’s worst record at 17-65 and the highest probability to land the No.1 overall pick but dropped to No. 3. They selected RJ Barrett, who has shown himself to be a solid piece to build with.

Yet at No. 2, the Grizzlies gained a transformative talent in Morant, who has become not only one of the league’s best players, but has elevated the Grizzlies, who were 33-49 in the 2018-’19 season, into a force. They were 35-18 entering the Garden, third in the West with the third best record in the NBA. Morant is to the Grizzlies what a young Rose was to the Chicago Bulls when he came to them as the
No. 1 overall pick in 2008. Fifteen years into his career, the Knicks have clearly not been the same team in the 33-year-old Rose’s absence, unable to adequately replace his production and ability to adeptly close out games.

Rose has been shut down with an ankle injury since last playing Dec. 15. He has been sidelined for half (26) of the Knicks’ 52 games. The Chicago native is working his way back from Dec. 22 surgery to remove a bone spur from his right ankle. Speaking with the media from the MSG Training Center in Tarrytown (Westchester County, N.Y.) on Monday, Rose said he is targeting a return to the lineup soon after the All-Star break. The Knicks’ last game before the NBA’s annual showcase event is Feb. 16 against the Brooklyn Nets at Madison Square Garden and their schedule resumes Feb. 25 at the
Garden versus the Miami Heat.

“Taking it one day at a time, been grinding, just trying to get back,” said the Knicks’ leading scorer in last season’s playoff series against the Hawks at 19.4 points per game, in addition to four rebounds and five assists in averaging 35 minutes. Before surgery this season, Rose’s per game averages were 24.5 minutes, 12 points, three rebounds and four assists.

“…Just being appreciative of the moment,” Rose reflected. “Just trying to take everything in. I look at it as a reset where I get a chance to clean up my routine, I get a chance to alternate a couple of things within my workout.

“…Right after surgery I felt the relief,” he expounded. “Like I said these moments right here slow you down, so[I’m] being very, very appreciative of just where I’m at.” Following the Lakers, the Knicks will face the Utah Jazz (next Monday), Denver Nuggets (Tuesday), Golden State Warriors (Thursday) and Portland Trailblazers next Saturday on the Western swing.

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