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So Who's Winning the NBA's Battle for New York Now?

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So Who's Winning the NBA's Battle for New York Now?
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

When the Brooklyn Nets left New Jersey in 2012 for their new digs, owner Mikhail Prokhorov took dead aim at the New York Knicks.

He wanted his team to be the toast of the town. Given the Knicks' decade-plus of ineptitude, it seemed possible that the Nets could quickly shed their little-brother status in the five boroughs. Instead, nothing has gone to plan for either franchise.

The Knicks won a playoff series in 2013 for the first time since 2000, and the Nets lost a Game 7 at home in the first round. Both teams' strong seasons set up high expectations for 2013-14, and both teams started this campaign by piling up losses.

With the Knicks and Nets each showing signs of life after the calendar changed to 2014, we examine the state of each team this season and rate their outlook for the near future.

 

The 2013-14 Knicks

The Knicks lost 13 of their first 16 games. A season ago, they won 18 of their first 23 on their way to 54 wins, as they got key contributions from veterans like Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace. This season's tire fire surpassed the 2012-13 loss total with 34 games left to play.

Gone is the plucky group from last year, replaced by a ragged squad that does not come close to fitting together. Veterans like Metta World Peace have failed to provide the glue and savvy leadership that bolstered the team last year. The acquisition of Andrea Bargnani brought 13.3 points per game over 42 appearances before his elbow injury, but it also created a nightmare in the rotation.

Knicks coach Mike Woodson tried "going big" by starting Bargnani at the 4 and moving Carmelo Anthony to the 3 where his advantage in quickness is neutralized. It's no wonder that Woodson's job status has become a daily topic of conversation in the media, and his firing appears imminent.

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

He's a defensive specialist coach, but it's still curious that the team rarely runs plays on offense instead favoring the "iso Melo" approach. The Knicks also rank 21st in defensive efficiency, allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com, down from 16th last season.

The Knicks have shown signs of life in 2014, but they still exhibit troubling symptoms on any given night. They went 10-6 in January, which included a five-game winning streak followed by a five-game losing streak.

The team began February with another three-game skid. As of Feb. 8, the Knicks were 20-30, incredibly putting them just two games out of the playoffs. The postseason is very much within reach for this team, but they clearly lack the talent to make noise in May.

 

The 2013-14 Nets

Lowly Knick fans were able to take solace that the Nets looked equally awful after trading to get ancient Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics in June. Newly hired coach and ex-Knick Jason Kidd looked completely lost on the sidelines. 

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

When All-Star center Brook Lopez was once again broke the fifth metatarsal in his right foot on Dec. 20, ending his season, it seemed the Nets were headed straight for the glue factory. Franchise point guard Deron Williams had already missed 11 games with an ankle injury at that point, and the team finished 2013 with a 10-21 record.

The new year brought a new approach in Brooklyn, and it's been going like gangbusters. The team is 12-5 in 2014, and more importantly, they have hit upon an identity that wins basketball games. Favoring smaller lineups and de-emphasizing their bigs has led the Nets to a more potent rotation producing far better results. It also helps that Pierce and Garnett have played better of late.

As Kidd phrased it for Zach Lowe of Grantland, "You have to have a sense of structure and an identity. You have to know who you are, and how you’re going to play both ends. And now we do."

Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

Entering Feb. 8, the Nets owned a 22-26 record: still nothing to boast about but good enough for seventh place in the weak East. Their minus-2.7 point differential speaks to their inconsistency as a team, and they have been dreadful away from Barclays Center, losing 15 out of 23 games. Nevertheless, things are trending upward, and they appear locked in for the postseason. 

Advantage: Nets

 

Knicks Star Players

There is no denying that Carmelo Anthony is the best player in the city of New York, at least outside of the streetballers in Rucker Park. He is the league's reigning scoring champion, and he set a franchise record by scoring 62 points on Jan. 24 against the Charlotte Bobcats. He's putting up 27.4 points per game and leading the league in minutes. 

However, the Knicks lack the supporting cast around him to form a title contender, and part of that is Anthony's fault. As Bleacher Report's Howard Beck phrased it: "Anthony’s insistence on the trade cost the Knicks depth and flexibility, pushing them to make ever more desperate moves: signing the volatile J.R. Smith or surrendering more draft picks for Andrea Bargnani. The result is a faulty, flaky roster, one they are stuck with through next season."

Worse still, part of the 2011 trade to get Carmelo from the Denver Nuggets involved taking Chauncey Billups' bloated contract. The Knicks used their amnesty provision on him, thus forcing them to live with the bad knees and worse defense of Amar'e Stoudemire for the life of his giant contract.

Essentially, the Knicks only have one good player aside from Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and even he is underperforming. Through 26 games, Chandler was averaging 8.2 points on 60 percent shooting and 8.8 rebounds per game.

John Minchillo/Associated Press
Chandler and Toure' Murry look on in boredom.

Last season, Chandler averaged 10.4 and 10.7. In 2011-12, he averaged 11.3 points on 68 percent shooting. Though Chandler is a strong defensive presence in the middle, he's not an elite rim-protector (1.1 blocks per game last season), and he's not delivering full value for his salary.

 

Nets Star Players

As noted in Lowe's article, the team could possibly consider trading Lopez, along with his balky feet and large contract, since they've found success with small lineups. Trading Lopez would put even more pressure on Williams, who missed five more games in January with another ankle injury. 

Williams is averaging 13.4 points and 6.7 assists per game, down from 18.9 points and 7.7 assists a season ago. He is one of the best point guards in the leagueas shown by his three-game stretch in December of double-doubles with at least 13 points and 13 dimesbut he is also prone to disappearing acts like the 111-95 loss to the dreadful Detroit Pistons on Feb. 7. Williams went for 10 points and zero assists in 25 minutes.

Aside from Lopez and Williams, the Nets have a seven-time All-Star in Joe Johnson, and if it weren't for his heroics, the Nets would certainly have fewer wins. From the start of the 2012-13 season, Johnson has been perfect on six field-goal attempts in the final 10 seconds of one-possession games, per NBA.com.

Advantage: Nets 

 

Quality of Knicks Rotation

The Knicks have unthinkably found value in the draft lately by choosing Iman Shumpert 17th in 2011 and Tim Hardaway Jr. 24th in 2013.

However, their overall rotation is in tatters.

Between the flabby pudge of Raymond Felton and the inadequate immune system of Beno Udrih, the Knicks are very weak at point guard. New York's frontcourt is severely lacking in depth thanks to the predictable breakdowns of Kenyon Martin and Metta World Peace. Bargnani is out with an elbow injury, and Stoudemire's knees could give way at any moment. 

And then there are the vicissitudes of J.R. Smith, last year's Sixth Man of the Year who actually managed to earn a fine from the league and a rebuke from his coach for attempting to untie his opponents' shoelaces. They hitched their horse to a player with a long history of misbehavior, and they have reaped the consequences.

 

Quality of Nets Rotation

Despite losing their leading scorer in Lopez, the Nets have flourished thanks to the quality of their rotation. Andray Blatche has done an admirable job in the middle, and somewhere Washington Wizards fans are shaking their heads and muttering under their breath. After posting a career-high 21.9 player efficiency rating last season (15 is average), he's got a PER of 20 this season via Basketball Reference

Reid Kelley/Getty Images

The return of Andrei Kirilenko helped in various ways thanks to his versatility. Other surprisingly competent contributors include veteran point guard Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, plus young forwards Mason Plumlee and Mirza Teletovic.

Advantage: Nets

 

Draft Picks

Both the Knicks and Nets clearly have zero regard for building through the draft, as they have aggressively shipped multiple first-round picks in order to make numerous questionable trades. 

There has been a lot of talk about which teams might be tanking in order to get a good lottery pick and select someone from the strong 2014 draft class. The Knicks cannot possibly be tanking because they have already given their 2014 first-round pick to the Denver Nuggets in the Carmelo Anthony trade, via Real GM.

At least the Knicks got something of value in trading for 'Melo, unlike the 2016 first-round selection they yielded for injured big Andrea Bargnani. This is what happens when the owner thinks he knows the sport and wants to have input on roster decisions. 

For Brooklyn, in order to get Boston's graying Big Three, the Nets surrendered their first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. They also promised the Atlanta Hawks they could switch first-round selections in 2014 and 2015 in order to get Joe Johnson. And the Celtics can swap 2017 first-rounders if they choose.

Advantage: Knicks (barely)

 

Cap Space

Apparently some teams in the NBA try to save cap space so they can sign free agents and enjoy some maneuverability with the roster.

But not the Knicks and Nets. According to Sham Sports, the Nets have the largest payroll for 2013-14 at $101.7 million, and they are committed to $89.9 million next season. They are also set to pay roughly $80 million in luxury taxes.

The Knicks have the second-highest payroll this year at $88.8 million, which jumps to $91.2 million next season. Anthony has the right to exercise his early-termination option in the offseason and become a free agent, and the decision will decide the fate of the franchise for the next half-decade.

By rule, the Knicks can offer more money to retain Anthony than any other team, and he is motivated primarily by money, but he could also choose to bolt for greener pastures and a better shot at a title. 

Advantage: Knicks (barely)

 

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The Skinny

Ultimately, the Nets are in a considerably better position than the Knicks, but that is merely because their rotation is deeper and more talented. Both teams are stocked with players on bloated contracts, and both have banished future first-round draft picks as if motivated by a severe allergy to them. 

Regardless of the final standings, neither team is good enough to even dream about playing in the Eastern Conference finals. The Nets are better situated at the moment with a slightly superior roster, but both teams are in massive trouble for the future without picks or cap space. 

Whether they root for the Nets or the Knicks, New Yorkers are united by their disgust in the quality of basketball they have watched this season, and that could be the norm for the foreseeable future. With history on their side, the Knicks will always have a tighter grip over the city than the Nets, just as the New York Giants and New York Yankees enjoy dominance over their intracity expansion-team rivals.

In 2014, the Knicks are squarely in Brooklyn's rearview, but both franchises have turned New York City into a hardwood torture chamber. These are win-now teams without the assets required to win now.

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