Posted Nov 16 2009 12:32PM
Clearly the biggest victims of LeBron James' free-agent-talk embargo are the New Jersey Nets and New York Knicks, as both would rather continue to dream about the future than dwell on the present.
The Nets and Knicks knew that this would be somewhat of a lost season, and were willing to take one step back in order to take two steps forward next summer. But no matter how low expectations were, neither can be happy now as the Nets and Knicks are a combined 1-16 heading into Friday's games.
Coach Mike D'Antoni was focused on making the playoffs this season despite all the 2010 talk and the Knicks' lack of winning players. But through 2 1/2 weeks of games, New York has shown no signs of being able to end their five-year postseason drought. And before he can think about winning 30 games, D'Antoni needs to figure out how to get his team to compete for at least 30 minutes.
At 1-8, the Knicks are actually the best fourth-quarter team in the league, outscoring foes by a total of 48 points in the fourth period. Unfortunately, the other three quarters are a problem: New York has been outscored by 50 points in the first, 21 in the second and 35 in the third.
In the games where the Knicks haven't started slow -- like last week's loss to the Pacers or Wednesday's loss to the Hawks -- they've collapsed down the stretch. Even in last week's win over the equally-troubled Hornets, the Knicks didn't put together 48 minutes of effort.
D'Antoni hoped that the contract-year status of so many of his players would be a motivational factor and his players would play with a common goal of increasing each other's open-market value. Instead, the franchise's focus on the future has created a cloud of uncertainty in the locker room.
The coach also insisted that winning games would take precedence over developing the young players on the roster. As such, rookie Jordan Hill (the eighth pick of the Draft) has played just 21 minutes. If the veterans aren't helping the team win, D'Antoni's priorities may have to change. Rookie point guard Toney Douglas is already threatening to take minutes from starter Chris Duhon, who is shooting a putrid 24 percent from the field.
Duhon's struggles embody those of his team. We knew the Knicks were, once again, going be a bad defensive squad. Neither D'Antoni nor the majority of his roster have any history of success on the defensive end of the floor. But they actually rank lower in offensive efficiency than they do defensively.
For the 0-8 Nets, their offense is even worse, ranking 29th in efficiency and having failed to score 20 points in nine different quarters this season. New Jersey is the only team in the league without a win, and was just 1-6 in the preseason. They even lost all five of their summer league games in July. Dating back to the final game of last season, the Nets' organization has lost 20 of their last 21 games.
Yet somehow, the Nets don't seem nearly as dispirited as their counterparts across the Hudson River. They've got seven guys on the shelf, including four starters, and All-Star point guard Devin Harris has been out since Game 2. But in each of their last three games, the Nets have shown energy and fight, losing tight games to Philadelphia (twice) and Boston.
That has translated into improvement on the defensive end of the floor. Having ranked 23rd defensively last season (allowing 108.1 points per 100 possessions) and having traded Vince Carter to Orlando, the Nets had to make strides on the defensive end in order to be at all competitive this season. They haven't exactly turned into the Celtics, but through Thursday, the Nets ranked 16th defensively, allowing just 103.3 points per 100 possessions.
They should improve offensively when they start getting healthy of course, but it's possible their defense has been better because some of their offensive-minded players have been out of uniform. If the Nets can achieve a proper balance when the rest of their starting lineup returns (a process which may begin this weekend), the season won't be completely lost. They have a good group of young players that, even if a marquis free agent is coming next summer, needs time to build a foundation for success.
The season isn't over for either of these teams. The 2004-05 Chicago Bulls lost their first nine games and finished at 47-35. Anything above 33 wins for either of these teams is a stretch, but the only thing to be gained from continuing at the pace they're at now is a high lottery pick, and the Knicks don't even have theirs this year.
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