Projected to spend their time fighting for a slot in the Eastern Conference's top five, the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks are expensive underachievers, tottering cash pits that are incapable of remaining healthy or shining in a dark and dingy Eastern Conference.
Playoffs should be the last thing on their minds as a result as these squads prepare to meet for the second time this season. Teams well below .500 don't have the luxury of uttering things like "postseason-worthy" and "hopeful" at this point of the season. "Desperate" and "lost" are typically more appropriate in these situations.
Out East, though, promise exists in those with a pulse and refusal to quit.
Four Eastern Conference teams are above .500, and the Knicks and Nets play in the Atlantic Division, the worst of three awful East divisions—which is why both teams will make the playoffs.
They may sprint, crawl or limp into the postseason, but they're going to get there—both of them—injecting purpose into a potentially lost year.
How far either team goes, and how much damage it's able to inflict, is what remains to be seen.
Case for the Nets
Had this same question been asked before the turn of the new year, the Nets wouldn't be eligible for consideration.
Brook Lopez was done for the season, and Deron Williams continued to waltz in and out of the lineup. Injuries to their two "best" players, coupled with Andrei Kirilenko's back issues and the deteriorating play of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, left little in the way of optimism.
Fast-forward to 2014, and the Nets are playing like juggernauts, posting a 6-1 record that has included victories over the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and Golden State Warriors. What's more, the Nets' resurgence has largely come without Williams, who hasn't played since Jan. 4.
Led by the always clutch Joe Johnson, an uptick in production from key role players and the restored fire of Garnett and Pierce, the Nets have played themselves out of lottery contention (for now), and they have a one-game hold on the East's eighth and final playoff spot.
Brooklyn isn't playing scrubs during this recent stretch either. Six of the Nets' last seven games have come against teams above .500, and they've gone 5-1 in those contests. They're beating good teams. Winning teams.
|Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
|Since New Year||105.9||101.6||4.3|
These last seven games have marked a complete turnaround for the team that spent its first 31 contests searching for an identity and finding nothing. But a new year has brought a new team, one that's recognized for improved defense and more consistent offense.
More help is on the way too.
Per The Record's Andy Vasquez, Williams is on his way back:
Deron Williams says he plans to play tomorrow vs. Knicks.— Andy Vasquez (@andy_vasquez) January 19, 2014
Williams' injury track record cannot be ignored, but with the way the Nets have played of late, he's not returning to save the day; he's joining a party the Nets hope is just getting started.
"We might not have gotten off to the start that we wanted, but it’s a process and the biggest thing is from our owners to our players, no one panicked," Nets head coach Jason Kidd said, via ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo. "And we feel that we’re getting better each day and we’ve still got some room to grow and get healthy and see what happens."
Keep this up, and for the first time all season, Brooklyn will actually want to see what happens next.
Case for the Knicks
Brooklyn isn't the only New York-based team enjoying a prosperous 2014.
The Knicks began the new year by winning six of their first seven games as well, featuring a five-game winning streak that included a dissection of LeBron James' Heat.
Slowly, surely, they started to get healthy. Tyson Chandler came back, bringing with him hope the Knicks hadn't sniffed since last season.
J.R. Smith's recreational shoelace obsession didn't help silence the doubters, but the Knicks managed to rise above the drama and put together a string of impressive victories, using their Texas Triangle road trip as a launching point.
|Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.|
|First Seven Games of 2014||106.2||99.9||6.3|
|Since New Year||103.7||105.3||-1.6|
"I think, in close games, we are starting to learn how to figure things out at the end," Knicks coach Mike Woodson said following their win over the Phoenix Suns, via ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk.
Tempered elation quickly regressed into widespread disappointment.
Following their overtime victory against Phoenix, the Knicks lost three straight, two of which were blowouts handed out by the Lance Stephenson-clad Indiana Pacers and Chris Paul-less Los Angeles Clippers.
In that time, they've also lost Amar'e Stoudemire and Kenyon Martin to injury.
Belting out three straight losses has put them 10 games under .500 once again, two games back of a playoff spot.
But there is a silver lining.
Mike Woodson said he’s considering starting Pablo Prigioni in his return to the lineup Monday in an all-point-guard backcourt with Raymond Felton.
Prigioni will make his return from a broken toe in the Knicks’ big showdown against the Nets in a MLK Day Matinee at the Garden at 2:30 p.m. Prigioni has missed the last 16 games after breaking his toe on Dec. 16.
Two great things are rolled into one here.
First, there's Priggy Smalls, who is without a doubt the Knicks' most important point guard. When he's on the floor, the ball moves more frequently, and offensive decisions have more purpose.
|Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.||eFG%||TS%|
Next, starting Prig alongside Felton means more of Carmelo Anthony at the 4. And more Anthony at the 4 is something that even Woodson admitted was a good thing, per ESPN New York's Ian Begley:
That’s a possibility. I know we were great last year with Melo at (power forward) and Melo hasn’t had an opportunity to play a lot of four this year based on, you know, (Andrea) Bargnani, and having Kenyon and Amar’e. You’ll probably see more four now that those guys are out. Bargnani could possibly come off and back up Tyson at the center spot.
"Great success" is an understatement.
Small ball fueled New York's 54-win 2012-13 campaign. Woodson has deviated from that blueprint this season, partly because the presences of Stoudemire, Martin, Bargnani and Chandler changed things, but mostly because, per the Wall Street Journal's Chris Herring, Woodson believes the "East is big, man."
Only the East isn't big. And now, neither are the Knicks.
Embracing lineups that worked last season after marginal success in early 2014 could help the Knicks even more.
Maybe even allow them to edge closer to that ever-elusive .500 mark.
Which Team Is More Playoff-Ready?
Our answer must be preceded by a disclaimer.
Plenty can and will change before the playoffs. Injuries could hit both teams harder than ever, or they could regress into the sniveling upscale masses they were previously.
But right now, both teams have given fans what they didn't have for most of the season: reason to believe.
In spite of an injury-ravaged roster, the Nets are surging, taking down opponents they would have to face in the playoffs. They've already beaten Miami twice, and Pierce and Garnett, despite season-long struggles, were brought in for their postseason attitude.
The Knicks, meanwhile, have nearly duplicated Brooklyn's success.
Stringing together their longest winning streak of the season and overthrowing superior opponents like the San Antonio Spurs and Heat were causes for smiles. Recent slip-ups and developing injuries have quieted the rose-sounding roars, but with seven games remaining on an eight-game homestand, faith exists.
But it's not as evident as it is in Brooklyn.
Take it from someone who previously predicted the Knicks would finish third or fourth in the Eastern Conference: Brooklyn can still be scary.
Pierce and Garnett are programmed to beat the Heat, and Kidd has shown a willingness to experiment with different lineups—"The Truth" at power forward—that afford the Nets more flexibility and offensive options. Soldiering on without Lopez will be difficult, and Williams' uncertain status is a reality the Nets will likely never escape, but they're built to make playoff noise.
No one player has absolutely dominated during their recent stretch. It's been different guys who have stepped up from night to night.
Across the Hudson are the Knicks, equally capable of waging a turnaround but at a greater disadvantage.
Anthony has been healthy and playing his brand of basketball. Shoot, he's played better than that. Disregard his fluctuating shooting percentages, because he's never been more of a double-double threat or willing passer. Though far from perfect, he's been better than good enough.
The Knicks haven't.
Which New York team will fare better in the playoffs?
New York has been unable to hold home court, posting a 7-13 record at Madison Square Garden, where it lost only 10 games all last season. The Nets have at least used Barclays Center to win, going 10-9, a significant accomplishment when the team is still six games under .500.
At their core, on paper, they have more established talent. More experience. More playoff performers. What the Knicks have is a comparable roster assembled around one superstar who doesn't have the stable of sidekicks Brooklyn has given the oft-injured Williams.
"This is our time to make something happen," Anthony said of the Knicks' current home stand, via Begley. "If there’s any time in the season, this is it."
Failure to jump-start their season now, preferably with a second win over Brooklyn, will leave them where they currently are: chasing the Nets in the standings and falling decidedly short of their postseason ceiling.