Carmelo Anthony is the one unstoppable force in the matchup.
They now reside a Steve Novak three-point field goal from each other—a borough apart, a bridge too far, from Midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn. The Knicks have always been New York, residing in Madison Square Garden, the Mecca for hoops, the World's Most Famous Arena.
And now the Nets, the perpetual nomads of the tri-state area—relocated from Long Island to East Rutherford to Newark—are trying to establish themselves as more New York than the Knicks. They are Brooklyn, where fans still hold the itinerant Dodgers in their hearts.
But where this will be decided is on the basketball court. It's not settled yet, thanks in part to the tragic arrival of Hurricane Sandy—postponing what would have been a gala opening night for the Nets in Brooklyn. The scheduled debut of Barclays Center was washed out, but the two will begin this new phase of the rivalry now in earnest, trying to prove that they are the class of New York.
The Nets may have the new, but the Knicks still have the advantage in the hearts of New York, and most important, on the court.
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Crossing from New Jersey to New York may seem like it takes forever when you wait at the bridges and tunnels, but it doesn't buy you the real history that does take decades to create.
The Nets have Dr. J. They had Jason Kidd—and now the Knicks have him.
But the Knicks don't need to swipe any history from the Nets. Even though the little brothers of the rivalry had the best of the most recent playoff matchup when Kidd was running the Knicks, the Knicks have Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere and Bill Bradley.
The Knicks have history as one of the original NBA teams while the Nets are ABA vagabonds.
Does this matter? Jason Kidd spent years on the other side of this and knew that no matter what he did on any given night he was fighting a wave he could not stop.
"They were the measuring stick," Kidd said before the two teams met in preseason. "They had everything, right? We were competing against their history and we came up short. We got there twice (to the NBA Finals). But we came up short."
The Nets don't have to just match. The tie still goes to the champ in title fights and the Knicks are still the champions with history, and a pair of titles to their franchise.
If you had to pick one player to start a franchise among the players scattered on the Knicks and Nets rosters it might not be Carmelo Anthony.
As a matter of fact, it's probably not a maybe. Nets point guard Deron William is, like Anthony, part of the USA National Team that took home a gold medal in the London Olympics this year. But as the point guard, he is the unquestioned leader of the Nets while Anthony has had his every move scrutinized and criticized since arriving in the NBA.
But if Williams is a talented leader for the Nets, Anthony is something else—the only unstoppable force on either team. He is arguably, outside of Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, the best scorer in the NBA right now.
Asked the difference between the two teams, one Western Conference assistant coach told the New York Post this summer, “Because of Carmelo being best player on the floor from either team and his end-of-game ability."
Williams is special, but Anthony has that one skill that can't be stopped. Some days his coaches may lose a little hair watching it, but he can score on anyone at any time.
The Knicks stars and salary are in the frontcourt.
Much was made this summer of the Nets major move of adding Joe Johnson from Atlanta. It was pointed to as the move that made Deron Williams decide to stay and the move that elevated the Nets into a contender.
It gave them what they believe is the best backcourt in the game.
"This is a great day, because it's a day when we put together the best backcourt in the NBA," Nets general manager Billy King said the day that they announced the deal.
He might be right, although a few teams might provide an argument—like the Lakers with Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant. But the Knicks wouldn't argue that Williams and Johnson don't have the edge on them, matched against Raymond Felton and Ronnie Brewer.
But while the Nets broke the bank on the backcourt, the Knicks spent their money on the front line and that heart of the Knicks lineup makes a difference. The rebuilding of the Knicks began with the five-year, $100 million deal that they handed Amar'e Stoudemire. Then the huge deal at the trade deadline in Feb. 2011 brought Carmelo Anthony to New York and paired him with Stoudemire to give them a pair of stars.
The move that makes the difference and snaps the tie between the Nets backcourt and the Knicks frontcourt though is last year's addition of Tyson Chandler, another high-priced star and one that anchors what was an awful defense before he arrived.
Jason Kidd is the NBA's third-oldest player.
Winning takes time in the NBA. You rarely throw together a conglomeration of talent and just watch it take off. Just ask the Lakers who saw their season start with a pair of disappointing losses after working their fantasy basketball offseason.
The Nets will experience those growing pains this season as they acclimate to each other. Joe Johnson was thrown into the mix and the bench was almost completely re-done this summer.
Now the Knicks rebuilt their team this summer, too, adding nine new players to the roster. The difference though is age and experience.
The Knicks boast—or maybe they don't like to exactly boast about it—four of the six oldest active players in the game. That may mean a few games on the sidelines with bumps and bruises associated with age. But it also means that each one of them have been there and done that already.
Just look at the Knicks' 3-0 start out of the gate this season. Jason Kidd, a surefire hall-of-fame point guard, has started all three games at shooting guard and has provided leadership that has solidified this once disparate group. Rasheed Wallace at 39 years old has emerged from a two-year retirement and plopped onto the floor without a minute of playing time in preseason has wowed the team with beautiful give-and-go plays with fellow geriatric, 35-year-old rookie Pablo Prigioni.
These players just know how to play the game.
"As far as chemistry goes, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg," Wallace said after playing 13 minutes in the third game, his highest total so far this year. "That’s one thing we actually were talking about at halftime. With the way we are, it’s just a matter of veteran guys just knowing how to play basketball."
Tyson Chandler is the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
While the Knicks have the best scorer on either team in Anthony, they also boast the best defender.
Tyson Chandler is the reigning defensive player of the year, the anchor to the Knicks defense and a key to the Dallas Mavericks' run to an NBA title two years ago.
Last year when he arrived in New York he was sort of a one-man throwback. On a team with little interest in playing on that end, Chandler was the backstop, the clean-up for all of the Knicks defensive flaws.
Now he is united with players who play the game the way he does. Ronnie Brewer was imported from the Chicago Bulls, having been a key part of that group's tenacious D. Jason Kidd was one of the best defensive point guards in his prime and still is savvy enough to pull it off even as the quickness and speed have faded from his game. Rasheed Wallace is the same in the front court, smart enough to make up for what the years have done. And Marcus Camby remains a shot-blocking force in the paint.
The Nets are frankly lacking on that end. Brook Lopez is a skilled scorer, but defensively weak. Kris Humphries is another weak link. The Nets backcourt includes Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, both defensive-minded players, but there is little else to help them.
This matters now, but really becomes an issue in the postseason when play reverts to a half court game. The Knicks are now built with a defensive mindset—one even Carmelo Anthony has bought into under head coach Mike Woodson. And they also have a mean streak. Kurt Thomas has six fouls to give and you can bet every one of them will be a hard one.
When the Knicks beat the Philadelphia 76ers on the road Monday night, Rasheed Wallace played a key role, including burying a buzzer-beating three-pointer at the end of the third quarter. As soon as he hit it he jabbed three fingers at his head—a gesture teammates repeated as they rushed to celebrate with him.
Explaining after the game what the gesture meant, Wallace laughed.
"Three to the head," he said. "Bang, bang, bang."
The Knicks may like to point to their history and a measure of class with Willis Reed still lovingly referred to as the captain. But the Knicks right now boast a few key pieces that outside of the Knicks fan base are downright mean and unlikeable. Wallace is the scourge of every referee.
But add in J.R. Smith, who drew one of the two technical fouls the Knicks had in that game in Philadelphia. Kurt Thomas may be the oldest player in the game, but make no mistake, he's still "Crazy Eyes". The same hard-nosed player he has been all of his career.
The Knicks once tried to use muscle to match up with Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. Now, with the talented Miami Heat as the measuring stick of the league they are doing it once more by using fouls as a statistic worth measuring.
Steve Popper is the Knicks beat writer and NBA columnist for the Bergen Record. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, were obtained through press conferences and interviews.