A Rose in the Garden


Just under five years ago, Derrick Rose had become the youngest MVP in league history, only three seasons into his career. His incredible athleticism, vision, and scoring ability led the Chicago Bulls to the #1 seed in the East, and it appeared that the Bulls had lucked into a generational talent when they took him with the first overall pick in the 2008 draft.

Six months later, Rose inked a five-year, $94.8 million contract extension, tethering him to his hometown team until the end of the 2017 season. After years of futility in the post-Jordan era, the Bulls appeared to be in prime position to become a perennial Eastern Conference contender for years to come. All that changed during game 1 of the 2012 playoffs. With 1:22 left in the game, up by 12 on the Philadelphia 76ers, Rose injured his left knee and hobbled off the court. As basketball fans around the world desperately hoped for a minor sprain, Chicago's worst fear was realized - Rose had torn his ACL, and he would miss the rest of the playoffs.

Years later, after multiple knee surgeries and 201 missed regular season games, Rose was traded to the hapless New York Knicks, desperate for a starting caliber point guard. A new beginning for one of the biggest what-ifs in NBA history. But what can the Knicks expect from a player who has barely seen the hardwood in the past four seasons?

The statistics on Rose's 2015-16 season are, quite frankly, almost unequivocally awful; analysts and fans have been quick to throw around his season-long numbers as further proof that the Knicks front office is a moronic group that functions solely to grab the biggest star available. Convoluting the issue, however, is the oft-overlooked fact that Rose suffered an orbital bone fracture in training camp, and reports after the surgery noted that Rose could be dealing with double vision for as long as three months, even though the fracture itself had already healed.

Naturally, a handicap of that nature is a big problem in a sport heavily predicated on depth perception and visual acuity, and Rose's month by month shooting numbers show that residual double vision almost certainly influenced his ability to score efficiently.

Check out his true shooting percentage, month-to-month:

October November December January February March April
41% 40.7% 46.1% 52.6% 50.8% 51.1% 40.9%

As Rose played only three games in April, it seems prudent to focus on the other six months of the season, where a clear pattern emerges. Three months from September 29th, the day of his injury, his true shooting percentage jumped from "Dion-Waiters-in-Cleveland" bad to merely below average (the Philadelphia 76ers posted a collective true shooting of 52% last season).

His post All-Star break numbers are quite impressive: 47% from the field and 38% from 3, numbers that jumped even further in catch-and-shoot situations (41% from 3, 43% from 2). Both of these trends bode well for his future as a scorer.

Regardless of whether or not his vision was in working order, Rose's biggest asset post-injury has always been his dribble penetration from the perimeter, an area in which the New York Knicks have been woefully inadequate since the disappearing act/departure of Raymond Felton. Last season, Rose averaged .28 drives to the rim per minute, a figure nearly identical to those elite dribble penetrators like Russell Westbrook (.29 drives/minute), LeBron James (.26) and Kyrie Irving (.28). In comparison, the Knicks starting backcourt last season (Jose Calderon and Arron Afflalo) averaged a COMBINED .12 drives to the rim per minute.

A familiar trope regarding a post-injury Rose has been the idea that he has lost enough of his athleticism to make it difficult for him to ever approach the player he once was. While this is true to a degree, Rose was one of the most mind-blowingly incredible athletes ever to touch the hardwood in his MVP season - Rose still has a remarkable amount of speed, quickness, and change of pace. Here he breaks down an entirely set John Wall in two dribbles, bending his body like an edge rusher attacking a tackle; Rose managed to get all the way around Wall and draw help from Nene. Unfortunately, Wall makes a play on Taj Gibson to deny the score.

 

Having Rose break down the opposing defense will allow Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis to take more open catch-and-shoot jumpers, a luxury that did not occur very often last season. Take a look at this play, and substitute Porzingis in place of Pau Gasol

 

Rose does tend to get tunnel vision when attacking the rim, however, which is not good for a player who has struggled to finish around the rim with any consistency. Rose passes out of his drives only 23.3% of the time - a figure that, if it holds up, will not be good enough to generate quality offense for the rest of the team. Here, Rose has Cristiano Felicio wide open crashing to the rim; instead of dumping it off, however, Rose chooses to take a short floater before his feet were fully set.

 

The other crucial issue when it comes to Rose's ability to penetrate & collapse a defense is his tendency to play scared compared to his best seasons. His free throw rate has dipped significantly (.313 before the injury, and a paltry .197 after the injury, per basketball reference, a trend which has caused him to settle for more pull-up jump shots. Watch as the Bulls generate a switch, leaving Jonas Jerebko to guard Rose - a classic mismatch that Rose should attack full speed to score, draw a foul, or attract help defenders. Instead, Rose opts for a step back 16 footer, which he misses badly.

 

Derrick can still be a highlight factory at the rim on occasion, but his best work comes when opposing big men are not in position for a quality contest at the hoop, which is obviously a relatively rare occasion. The bad news: Rose shot a dismal 51% from 0 to 3 feet last season, a career low by far. The good news: Rose shot 56% from that same distance the year before, and playing with a stretch 5 in Kristaps Porzingis will give him a plethora of opportunities at the rim with no big man in sight.

 

Rose has also shown an improved midrange jump shot, something he has been working on in the offseason for some time. He already has a cornucopia of one-handed floaters and jump hooks in his arsenal, but those are only effective to about 10 feet from the rim - anything further and he cannot generate the proper power without sacrificing body control.

 

This past season, however, Rose significantly improved his shooting from 10-16 feet and began to perfect a bank shot - something he and Porzingis have in common. Rose shot 48% from 10-16 feet last season, just below his career high, despite taking a career high 16% of his shots from that distance. Further than 16 feet, Rose is ineffective at best and a total non-threat at worst.

As Rose will likely take a backseat concerning scoring to both Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis, the decrease in shot attempts will result in a notable increase in efficiency from Rose - as noted previously, efficient scoring has been the biggest issue for Rose after his injury. Even if Rose is never able to get to the line as much as other star players, the ability of Carmelo and even Porzingis to hit difficult shots late in possessions will allow Rose to pick his spots better and become a more efficient scorer.

The Chicago Bulls last season were a bit of a mess (understatement) in so many ways that it would be disingenuous not to mention them. Implementing a new offense under rookie head coach Fred Hoiberg was interesting at best and disastrous at worst - this play is from mid February, a time in which every team should have settled into an offensive rhythm months ago. Rose and Pau Gasol are on a different page as Pau tries to set a screen, and Rose gives a frustrated flick of the wrist at Snell and Portis, who are positioned too closely together in the weakside corner. Portis clearly has no idea what is going on over the course of this play, and Pau misses him standing all alone in the corner to boot.

 

This is not what you want to see out of a supposed motion offense; it is reasonable to assume that a more fluid offensive system could make Rose look better than he did last season. Whether or not that can happen in New York remains to be seen, but Hornacek was known for an offense based on a high tempo and a lot of pick and roll - offensive philosophies that Rose should excel at.

On top of that, both of Chicago's star players have skill sets that just don't fit together. As a dribble penetrating point guard with a weak outside shot, Rose needs the ball in his hands to excel; unfortunately for the Bulls, Jimmy Butler also needs the ball in his hands to be at his best (post ups, isolations, and pick and roll). This sort of dynamic was worse for Rose as a player than it was for Butler. Neither are particularly great spot up shooters. Butler passes up a wide open three created by Rose for absolutely no reason in the next gif - but Butler is still substantially better in that aspect than Rose.

 

Therefore, when it was Butler's "turn" to run the offense, Rose was out of his element as an off-ball player. Watch this transition possession, where Butler draws Rose's man to defend the paint. Instead of staying at the 3 point line for an open catch and shoot jumper, as good 3 point shooters will do instinctively, Rose passes up on the look, and the advantage created by Butler is totally neutered.

 

In addition, the lack of shooting ability on the part of Rose allows his man to help liberally on other defenders, mucking up team offense elsewhere on the floor even when Rose is not involved in the play.

And last of all, we have the fascinating issue of Pau Gasol, and his mind-bogglingly bad screens that often serve almost no purpose whatsoever. Only one example is included below, but there were dozens of these kinds of possessions in every single Chicago game that he played in. Pau seemed hell bent on never staying set on screens for more than half a second, in favor of leaking out for a potential midrange jumper. This boosted his own numbers, especially when Rose drew help on his drives, but left Rose having to create something out of nothing.

 

Even under these circumstances, Rose showed flashes of vision and anticipation that suggest he can focus on distributing the ball instead of scoring when the situation is right. He makes looping timing passes in transition look easy - give this look to Carmelo Anthony rather than Tony Snell, and this becomes a great look.

 

Derrick has also demonstrated the ability to anticipate defensive rotations with cross court passes, giving his teammates the ball with a huge pre-established advantage that they can use to get quality shots.

Take note of the confused Doug McDermott at the start of the gif - he doesn't know where he should be going after Pau points to a spot on the floor. Once again, this is in mid-February.

 

For Rose to have a truly game-changing impact on the Knicks' offense next season, he will have to focus almost entirely on collapsing the defense, drawing help defenders, and kicking the ball back out to the perimeter. The last Knicks point guard to do so effectively (Raymond Felton) coincided with the winningest season in the last 15 years for the Knickerbockers. With Kristaps Porzingis dragging big men out of the paint, the Knicks offense has the potential to be extremely potent late in games if Rose can make the necessary adjustments. But there are two sides to basketball. How can Rose hold up on defense? Despite a reputation as a flat-out bad defender, a look at the tape shows that Rose is a surprisingly good defensive player. His limitations are obvious - small stature and short arms - but Rose plays good, fundamental defense and has the quickness and agility to dart around screens when he's locked in.

 

Fred Hoiberg never felt the need to hide Derrick on the defensive end, which says more about his defensive capabilities than anything else you'll read - at one point, Hoiberg even opted to have Rose guard Jae Crowder instead of Doug McDermott, who was (predictably) being torched. McDermott hid on Marcus Smart while Rose took the more difficult defensive assignment.

Rose can struggle against bigger guards like John Wall and Reggie Jackson, who are confident in their ability to finish over Rose at the rim, but he does a great job defending players closer to his stature.

 

He is an intelligent off-ball defender and positions himself well between the ball and his man without focusing on one or the other (leaving him vulnerable to a backdoor cut or missing a help rotation). In certain matchups, Rose will unquestionably be exploited, but on a night-to-night basis, Rose is not the defensive slouch many would have you believe. Overall, he is a solid but not spectacular defender - a guy who can't lock down an opposing player, but doesn't need to be hidden on a nightly basis, either.

With all that in mind, what can Knick fans realistically expect from Rose? Barring another disastrous injury, Rose can run the pick and roll in Jeff Hornacek's guard-heavy system very effectively (.84 points per possession as a pick and roll ball handler - only .01 worse than Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade despite much higher volume).

In lineups with Carmelo at the power forward spot and Porzingis at center, Rose has an opportunity to fuel an offense that will be tough to defend.

When Carmelo has the ball in isolation and post-up situations, Rose will need to be more active as an off-ball cutter and slasher or improve his jump shot to prevent his man from double teaming Melo every possession. If Rose shows no noticeable improvements in either area, expect Hornacek to give Carmelo more one-on-one possessions with the bench units to bolster their scoring while nullifying Rose's lack of shooting ability.

Look for Rose to push the ball more in transition, leading to easy offense for himself and the rest of the team - Hornacek likes to play uptempo, transition basketball, and Hoiberg's Bulls did not particularly emphasize transition offense despite playing at a high tempo themselves. The Bulls only had 50 more transition possessions than the Knicks last season despite a vast difference in the quality of guard play between the two teams.

If the Knicks are still shoehorning the Triangle offense, however, there could be a lot of problems very quickly. The Triangle emphasizes off ball movement and shooting ability while taking the ball out of the hands of guards, in favor of running the offense through the post - this sort of system is a terrible fit for what Derrick Rose brings to the table.

The Knicks should be smart enough to balance Triangle sets with heavy doses of pick and rolls (especially late in games), but there are no guarantees - what we can guarantee is that Rose's abilities will be neutered if he is forced to run the Triangle too frequently. Most importantly, expectations need to be manageable for this experiment to work. Projecting Rose to put up 22 PPG and 8 APG is a recipe for disappointment. Rose will almost certainly never reach anything close to his MVP peak ever again. But he is still capable of being an above-average point guard, and above all else, that is what the Knicks need.

Lastly, make sure to take the time to watch the Knicks a couple of times this season - even after all the injuries, Rose is one of the most dynamic and fun to watch players in the entire league. If all goes right, the Knicks could end up in the playoffs for the first time since 2013. But until then, here's a little something to whet your appetite before a long summer of anticipation.

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