It's the rivalry that was thrust at us in 2012 when New York City was granted its second NBA franchise. It's been talked up by players from both sides, but to this point, the highest level of competition between the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets has been in the press.
Both teams qualified for the playoffs in 2012-13, and split their four contests in environments that could be described as lukewarm at best. Last season, both teams were major disappointments, with only Brooklyn salvaging a playoff spot by season's end.
While neither team seems destined to take over the East in 2014-15, the two have crept closer together in competition level this offseason—Brooklyn falling down a peg after losing Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston, and the Knicks rid themselves of Mike Woodson and Raymond Felton while taking on younger talent.
In a much more balanced Eastern Conference, both teams should vie for a spot in the Top 8. Behind the expected powerhouses in Cleveland and Chicago, it's virtually impossible to agree on a set six to round out postseason action. The Knicks and Nets will likely be a part of the conversation all year long, but where they end up will determine the next turn of the young rivalry.
Brooklyn's offseason has been eventful—and not in a good way. After Jason Kidd decided one year of coaching experience was enough to try and supplant his general manager and demand a raise, the team let him out of his contract to assume the Milwaukee Bucks' head-coaching spot. They later added Lionel Hollins to the fold—a coach whose reputation includes maximizing his team's talent with the Memphis Grizzlies—so it's difficult to judge if this will turn out to be any more than a lateral move.
Still, the lack of continuity doesn't serve to ease the minds of several players locked into the team's future: one of whom being Kevin Garnett. Garnett is locked into the final season of his deal in 2014-15, but after Pierce ditched the meddling Nets for the Washington Wizards early in July, it's reasonable to wonder how motivated a 38-year-old KG will be.
They've lost Livingston, who averaged eight points, three boards and three assists in the Nets' backcourt, and Andray Blatche, who accounted for 11 points over 22 minutes per game. Filling those two voids will be Jarrett Jack, who put up a career-worst .498 true-shooting percentage with the Cavaliers last season, and Bojan Bogdanovich, a 6'8" forward the Nets finally brought over from Europe after a 15-point-per-game season in Turkey.
The team will rely on Joe Johnson, who posted the best true shooting of his career last season and may exceed the 40,000-career-minute threshold at some point this season.
But once all the secondary roles are filled out, it's clear that the Nets' two cornerstones will make or break their playoff chances for 2014-15.
Brook Lopez, coming off foot and ankle surgeries last season, will need to be every bit of his 2012-13 self to give Brooklyn a offensive threat down low. And if Deron Williams doesn't bounce back after averaging his lowest minutes, points, rebounds and assists totals since his rookie season, it may be time to finally put talks of the 30-year-old's stardom to rest for good.
Over in Manhattan, the Knicks reclaimed superstar Carmelo Anthony this month, ensuring that 2014-15 won't be a complete abomination. With Derek Fisher at the helm, it's a relatively safe bet that New York won't be as chronically prone to head-scratching decisions made by the head coach. That in itself is a drastic improvement.
The Knicks' most notable offseason move occurred before the draft, when they returned Tyson Chandler to the Dallas Mavericks, netting a haul of Jose Calderon, Sam Dalembert, Shane Larkin and Cleanthony Early—not to mention ridding themselves of Felton and the two years remaining on his deal.
Though they won't be able to make up for Chandler's impact at center, they'll be drastically improving at the point. To better understand how brutal Felton's 2013-14 campaign was, Basketball-Reference's win shares metric comes into good use.
This past year, Felton put up just .053 win shares per 48 minutes, which was the fourth-worst mark of his career. Calderon, too, posted the fourth-worst mark of his career with Dallas last season—but with a figure more than double Felton's at .122.
Calderon is providing what every point guard needs in the triangle offense: reliable three-point shooting and an ability to make the right play. Throughout his career, he's shot 41 percent from three-point range and dished out 6.8 assists on average.
The Knicks will be returning most of last season's core, including Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr., Amar'e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani. The way Fisher handles Stoudemire and Bargnani—who had as drastically negative an effect on the team's fortune last year as any—will be crucial.
|2013-14 Knicks: Worst On-Off Ratings (min. 500 minutes)|
|Tim Hardaway Jr.||23.1||-9.3|
|*Per 100 possessions|
If Fisher shies away from the pair of problematic forwards in favor of a younger group, it may not simply be a move geared toward the future. Tossing Early, Jeremy Tyler, Cole Aldrich and even Jason Smith in the frontcourt could complement Anthony better than Bargnani could. STAT's fate depends on whether he'll be anything more than a lost cause on the defensive end.
In a conference as wide open as the East is this season, it's difficult to rule any team out before the games even begin.
Cleveland and Chicago appear to be the conference favorites, but behind them, the Toronto Raptors, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards trail ever so slightly. The Atlanta Hawks will be returning Al Horford next season, and the Detroit Pistons will presumably improve under Stan Van Gundy.
Factoring in New York and Brooklyn, there could be 11 teams competing for the East's eight playoff seeds.
Both Big Apple residents boast a premier scorer: Brooklyn with Lopez and the Knicks with Anthony. Both are returning a bulk of their role players, and both will be adjusting to new schemes after offseason coaching swaps.
Brooklyn seems to have the edge—albeit a slight one after last season—at point guard, while its Jack-Johnson wing duo versus New York's Shumpert-J.R. Smith pairing is tough to call. Rounding out the starting fives, the Nets have huge question mark in Garnett, while the Knicks have no obvious starting center on the roster.
But what gives the Knicks the slight edge heading into training camp is their surprising depth and dependence on a system that's bound to make a difference.
Implanting 'Melo as the triangle's centerpiece could bring out yet another career season from the Knicks' star, coming off two straight phenomenal campaigns. As long as the surrounding pieces buy in and grow accustomed to their roles—which the Summer League squad showed no problem doing after just a few weeks together—New York's offense could be one of the league's most potent.
And assuming they trot out a starting five including Calderon, J.R., Shumpert, Anthony and Dalembert, the Knicks could theoretically go 10 deep with Prigioni, Hardaway, Early, Tyler (or Stoudemire) and Jason Smith. And that's without mentioning Larkin or Aldrich.
If Brooklyn opts for a D-Will-Jack combo in the backcourt with Johnson, Garnett and Lopez up front—Hollins frequently opted for bigger lineups in Memphis—that would leave a reserve unit of Bogdanovich, Mason Plumlee, Mirza Teletovic, Andrei Kirilenko and Alan Anderson.
There's no lack of talent in that Brooklyn frontcourt, but if Williams goes down with another injury or if Jack suffers through another down year, it'll be hard for the Nets to get by with the likes of Marquis Teague and Markel Brown running the show. And if Lopez isn't close to his All-Star form of two season ago, this may not even be a true debate at all.
Although they're coming off a much more promising season, the Nets' immediate future lays in much more fragile hands. If Joe Johnson doesn't regress, Garnett can remain effective at 38, Hollins can mix and match the right lineups and if Williams and Lopez bounce back healthily, then Brooklyn shouldn't have a problem competing for a playoff seed.
But if one chip falls out of place, Brooklyn could be staring a disaster season right in the eyes. And with $82 million already locked into the 2015-16 payroll, the team's future could get even worse before it gets better.