The city game needs a team the city can celebrate.
Such is the perplexing and somewhat frustrating relationship between New York and the two NBA teams that call it home. In the chase to see who can rise up and become king of the hill, the Knicks and Nets, right now anyway, are stuck in an elevator.
They meet Wednesday night, although there’s nothing on the line unless you put a special emphasis on eighth place in the East in January. In the more important bigger picture, though, the NBA’s biggest market is seeking the kind of attention that only a winner can bring, and it finds the Knicks and Nets somewhat desperate, in their own distinct ways, to gain the affections of a starved city.
The Knicks of Manhattan are going through yet another reinvention — everyone has lost count how many — and once again are without a transformational player on the roster or a clear path on the horizon. Meanwhile, the Nets of Brooklyn are seemingly built to last … but wait, their quirky star guard, Kyrie Irving, is once again trapped in limbo.
It’s just a weird existence for New York, where a blacktop can be found on almost every street corner, where basketball is by far the most popular participant sport among kids and teenagers, and where fans are among the most educated about the sport you’ll ever find. But at its highest level, basketball doesn’t share the same dominance or return the same amount of love it’s getting.
In the last two decades of New York City professional basketball — the Knicks since 2000 and the Nets since they moved from New Jersey in 2012 — those teams have combined to win just two playoff rounds. In that stretch, they’ve had 23 head coaches, including interims. That reflects the level of instability and transitional phases shared by both teams lately.
The amount of stumbles and setbacks are multiple: The Nets giving three first-rounders plus a swap to Boston, which became lottery picks, for aged Paul Pierce and aged Kevin Garnett … the Knicks armed with top-10 picks and coming away with Mike Sweetney, Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox … the Nets trading a first to Portland for Gerald Wallace and then compounding the mistake by giving Wallace a big contract in free agency while the pick became Damian Lillard … the Knicks hiring Phil Jackson to run the team and Derek Fisher to coach … the bad breakup between Jason Kidd the coach and the franchise he once led to back-to-back NBA Finals as a player.
Forbes Magazine has the Knicks and Nets valued at $7 billion, and the teams — especially the Knicks — have spent lavishly on payroll in the recent past. Yet there’s little to no return on the investment come spring and summer.
Here’s a New York State of Mind on each team:
Knicks still working on making things ‘attractive’
They haven’t won a title since 1973 and that anniversary only gets longer if not sadder. It’s not like they never had a heartbeat since; the Pat Riley and Jeff Van Gundy teams each had a shot, and a few of those Carmelo Anthony teams were fun. Also: Linsanity!
Yet, the Knicks over the last three decades have had too many false starts and stale lapses. They’re under new management now, with Leon Rose running the operation and Tom Thibodeau on the bench, and if nothing else they lend hope and deserve a chance to succeed or fail. It’s just that prosperity seems distant, given where they are and how much further they need to go.
The Knicks not only lack a superstar, there’s no intriguing young talent on the roster — no LaMelo Ball or Luka Doncic or Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell.Too many poor drafts prevented that, and when they did make the right decision, Kristaps Porzingis was traded, at his request, for cap space that couldn’t entice a free agent superstar.
Over the last 20 years, the Knicks have never had a first-team All-NBA selection or Rookie of the Year. That talent drain is the reason they’ve missed the playoffs seven straight years.
What’s troublesome is how the Knicks weren’t on the radar of great free agents. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard never gave the Knicks an interview, and players who forced their way out of teams — Anthony Davis among others — never forced their way to the Knicks. Anthony was a rare exception, and even that was botched; the Knicks traded assets to get him just three months before he became an unrestricted free agent and therefore risked nothing in return.
Durant said the Knicks were no longer “cool” and that has the ring of truth if only because glamour bypassed them for such places as Miami, Golden State and of course L.A. After signing with the Knicks, guard Austin Rivers was shocked by this, saying: “If you’re a real hooper, if you like playing on the biggest stage, this is it.”
True, and yet market size is outdated because endorsement power can be found in middle and smaller markets, mainly because of social media and a more viral world than 30 years ago. Plus, the makeup of New York isn’t for everyone; for example, the Knicks’ practice facility is deep in the suburbs while Madison Square Garden is in the middle of Manhattan, and toggling between those places isn’t for the faint of heart.
Anyway: The focus is on the present and how the Knicks can polish themselves as a franchise and earn respect league-wide. That doesn’t happen until the Knicks create reasonable track record for making the right decision on personnel. And that’ll require at least a few more drafts and trades and free agent signings. After a 5-2 start, they’ve lost three straight games and never broke 90 points in all three.
The good news: Julius Randle is having a strong start, averaging 22.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and an impressive 6.9 assists from the power forward spot. Best of all, he’s increasing his value, either to keep or trade. The Knicks would love to see the same growth from RJ Barrett, their top pick from two years ago, but the results are mixed so far. The Knicks have big expectations for Obi Toppin, their first rounder this year, but the injured rookie has only played one game. Mitchell Robinson brings an athletic presence at center and he’s just 22, but his pure skills are still under construction.
“We have to continue to build in the right direction,” Rivers said. “We don’t have four or five All-Stars on this team. We don’t have superstars on this team. But we have talented young players and you never know what can become on this team. Everything is headed in the right direction. We’re building to be a part of something special. So we got to make this attractive.”
It’s the Nets with controversy this time, but their talent is undeniable
Given where they were four years ago, trapped in the ruins from the regrettable Celtics trade, the Nets emerged far better than expected and enhanced themselves enough to get the approval of Durant and Irving, who signed up two summers ago.
That was a masterstroke, even if Durant missed all of last season while recovering from Achilles surgery and Irving played just 20 games because of injury. With both players healthy and showing the same impact as before — they’re averaging a combined 57 points, 13.1 rebounds and 11.9 assists — the stage, therefore, was set for a breakout 2020-21 season, which still may happen.
Right now though, Irving has been out since Jan. 7 because of a personal matter and the league is investigating footage of him at a party without a mask. The public is left to wonder if this is more of the same from Irving, an amazing talent but a perplexing individual who makes odd statements and was polarizing at his last stop with the Celtics.
Can the Nets trust Irving in the long haul, that his distractions will be few or nonexistent once he returns from his absence? Obviously there’s much at stake for a team with twin franchise players and championship dreams. If one of their stars creates friction or drama, that can have a domino effect in the locker room — and the biggest fear is how it’ll go over with Durant.
Durant is saying all the right things publicly, but he hitched his decision to sign with Brooklyn on Irving; the two were a package deal. Durant could’ve gone anywhere in 2019 and instantly made a contending team better. Instead, he connected with Irving, who brings a strange history; he could no longer deal with being teammates with LeBron James after winning a title, and his leadership in Boston was found to be faulty in the Boston locker room.
Even if normalcy returns for Irving and the Nets, the franchise faces a tough task in New York, where Knick blood runs deep. Although Brooklyn has clearly embraced the Nets, the fan affection by all accounts doesn’t cross the East River.
Besides Durant and Irving, the Nets are stocked with solid talent even if they lost Spencer Dinwiddie for the year with a knee injury. All of the important elements are there: shooting, interior defense, deep bench. That’s another reason Durant chose Brooklyn; the Nets had all the necessary pieces to surround him with. The Knicks didn’t.
Therefore, Durant said he didn’t want to be “the savior of the Knicks” and wanted Brooklyn so he could “chill … and just focus on basketball.” Well, clearly, it’s not just basketball when Irving is involved, at least at the moment.
This is a twist in New York, where controversy in the past was mainly confined to the Garden: James Dolan and Charles Oakley, Phil Jackson and Porzingis, etc. So this is a welcome switch for the Knicks.
Come Wednesday, for one night anyway, the Knicks and Nets will be on the same level, two teams looking to avoid their seventh loss and hoping for momentum. They’re doing their part to make New York notice; they’re just taking different routes to sit on top of the heap.
“Neither team has won a championship in quite some time,” Rivers said. “… obviously, we’re trying to build something here and they think they have a chance this year.”
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