After a 54-win campaign and their first trip to the second round in over a decade, the Knicks—the league’s leading scorer still in their corner—had gotten younger, while achieving slightly more roster flexibility.
The Nets, meanwhile, had spearheaded a blockbuster reload: trading for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, signing Andrei Kirilenko and anointing franchise legend Jason Kidd as the sideline sage to put it all together.
But it didn’t take long for the rivalry’s rancor to produce an unexpected, depressing new debate, spurred by mounting losses on both sides: Which team faces the bleaker future?
A dynasty of dysfunction
When the Knicks signed Tyson Chandler in the lead-up to the 2011-12 season, it didn’t take a math scholar to figure out that owner James Dolan had gone all in on his powerhouse frontcourt. With all three players either at or fast approaching their primes, the Knicks had given themselves the briefest of championship windows—one where savvy fringe signings were suddenly of the utmost.
It’s been a mixed bag to say the least: The Knicks barely made the playoffs in 2012 (and probably wouldn't have had it not been for something called "Linsanity"), managed to ride a torrent of hot shooting and delicate on-court chemistry to the second seed a year ago, and have looked positively schizophrenic during this season’s first few fortnights.
With their title chances closing quickly, the Knicks once again rolled the dice this past summer, trading Steve Novak, Marcus Camby and three draft draft picks to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for former number one overall pick Andrea Bargnani.
In so doing, the Knicks further hamstrung themselves in the short term—they have over $142 million committed just to Anthony, Stoudemire, Chandler and Bargnani alone over the next two years—while assuring they’ll have most of the deck cleared for the summer of 2015, when a slew of big-time free agents hit the market.
That might sound like a logical approach on its face. But Knicks fans are only too familiar with the harsh reality of James Dolan’s meddlesome ways, which have long been more about reloading than rebuilding. The concern is that the team will end up exactly where it was in 2010: Whiffing on LeBron James, Kyrie Irving or Kevin Love, and settling for—and likely overpaying—a flawed, second-tier superstar instead.
Just like they did with Stoudemire.
At that point, the franchise will invariably compound the mistake by setting their sights on the next headline-grabbing signing or deadline trade—a cycle of cosmetic quick fixes designed to draw attention away from the product on the court.
When it comes to spending money, James Dolan has seldom—if ever—blinked an eye. But such spend-happy strategies mask a cavalier approach to roster construction that prevents the Knicks from doing what so many others have mastered: rebuilding through the draft, developing talent and, above all, exhibiting patience.
It’s a track record that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov—a polar opposite of Dolan in so many ways—seems hell-bent not just on matching, but besting.
Keeping up with the Joneses
If James Dolan threw a party at the Waldorf Astoria, Mikhail Prokhorov might well turn around and host a New Year's bash on a spaceship. With the Rolling Stones headlining.
It’s a dynamic that’s existed ever since Prokhorov took a controlling interest in the then New Jersey Nets back in 2009—the year before the onetime Russian mining tycoon made basketball business personal by commissioning a gaudy five-story billboard just a stone’s throw from Madison Square Garden.
Prokhorov’s basketball decisions have been equally provocative. Indeed, every move the Nets have made has been about one thing above all: making a statement. The Deron Williams trade, the Joe Johnson signing, last summer’s Boston mega-coup—Prokhorov has done everything in his power (and his wallet) to make sure his team stays squarely above the sports page fold.
All told, the moves paint a picture of an owner who—like Dolan—is less concerned with whipping out the checkbook than making sure the name above the figure is spelled right. But if the Knicks have seen their roster flexibility handicapped by top-heavy salaries, Brooklyn’s prospects are certifiably crippled.
The Nets' payroll for the 2013-14 season stands at a shade over $101 million, by far the fattest in the league. Prokhorov’s tax bill? A whopping $80 million, or more than the payrolls of 27 other NBA teams.
The situation doesn’t get any better next year, when Brooklyn stands to pay out $87.3 million. And that’s assuming Prokhorov and general manager Billy King don’t bring back any of Paul Pierce, Shaun Livingston, Tyshawn Taylor, Alan Anderson or Tornike Shengelia.
Our very own Dan Favale has done a masterful job outlining just how precarious Brooklyn’s financial situation is. And while there are indeed options for dismantling Prokhorov’s onerous juggernaut, almost all of them entail a reality the brash, flashy owner almost certainly isn’t prepared for: being both bad and boring.
Mikhail Prokhorov may well boast a bigger bank account ($13.5 billion—four times as big as Dolan's), but it’s hard to believe he’d be willing to keep throwing bad money after bad with nothing to show for it. As far as NBA owners go, Prokhorov is still relatively green—the new kid on a bullion block, both barrels fully loaded with a trigger finger honed in the capitalist Wild West of post-Soviet Russia.
Which might well end up being his undoing.
The baddest borough—literally
At their core, the Knicks and the Nets share the same dual dilemma: Both are headed by owners with deep pockets and even deeper ambition, and both boast the benefit of playing in the media and financial capital of the world—a city where so many don’t even think twice about dropping a grand on a pair of tickets even if the team is terrible, so long as they can have fun, shoot the breeze and be seen.
When your audience runs 19 million deep, there’s always going to be someone to fill the seats. The psychological effect that has on an owner can’t be understated: Even if your team is 20-60 and headed for the lottery, it must be easy to see the packed arena as a 20,000-fold vote of confidence—a sign that, even if you’re terrible now, the fans are all too happy to foot for that next ounce of hope.
But while Dolan has benefited from this calculus for years, the early returns suggest Prokhorov might be wise not to bank on such blind support. The Nets finished 17th in attendance last season, and averaged over 500 empty seats a game. Not terrible, but not what you’d expect from a brand new franchise opening up in New York’s youngest, hippest and biggest borough.
True, the Nets are still building their brand, and after all, no fanbase was ever built in a day. But if there’s one thing the Knicks have over their cross-river rivals, it’s this: New Yorkers have been rooting for the orange and blue since 1946. The banners might be few and far between, but the Knicks are nothing if not a generational team—something the Nets, who abandoned decades of history in New Jersey for the bright lights of Barclay's, simply cannot buy overnight.
Still, the two franchises are at a common crossroads: Do they keep reloading and missing whilst their respective fans recoil, or will the bloated rosters and banner-less seasons finally persuade them towards more prudent paths of rebuilding?
The Knicks are much closer to being able to adopt the latter, should they choose to do so. The Nets, meanwhile, appear poised for at least a few years of basketball purgatory.
But if both double-down on big names and mortgaged futures, the two fanbases' disparate histories suggest one stands a better chance of bringing about something Dolan-era Knicks fans have been talking about for years: an orange and blue revolt.
Not even $13.5 billion can buy that.