Jason Kidd has already played a pivotal role in a handful of controversies during his first few months as the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. He’s taken phone calls during summer league games, attempted to ice free-throw shooters “by accident” and even “reassigned” the assistant coach (Lawrence Frank) who was supposed to be his most important ally, per David Mayo of MLive.com.
But there’s at least one thing about which Kidd is unequivocally correct: that the Nets aren’t the only embarrassing basketball outfit in town.
“It’s the rivalry and both teams stink,” Kidd told Mike Mazzeo of ESPN New York when asked about the importance of Thursday’s nationally televised tilt with the New York Knicks.
Gotham’s two teams, with their combined payroll of over $200 million (not counting impending luxury taxes), have won just eight of their first 34 games this season. If not for the miserable Milwaukee Bucks, the Knicks would be the bottom-feeder in the Eastern Conference right now.
Not that the Nets are sitting that much prettier. They’ve been fraught with just as many injuries, coaching controversies and locker-room squabbles as have their cross-bridge counterparts—if not more.
Neither team has anything to gain from its current quagmire, either. Both have long since surrendered their first-round picks in the loaded 2014 NBA draft, the Knicks in the deal that brought Carmelo Anthony to New York in February of 2011, the Nets to the Atlanta Hawks in the Joe Johnson trade during the summer of 2012.
Clearly, both Big Apple clubs are in dire straits right now, giving away money for nothing and drinks for free. But which team is worse off? Which should be more disappointed by the results thus far? And which should be more worried about what’s to come?
Depends on your angle, really.
X’s and Oh-No’s
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At first blush, the Knicks would appear to have the “upper hand” in the debate over which team is lower on the league’s totem pole.
New York is currently in 14th place in the awful East, just below the 13th-place Nets. The Knicks’ three wins are tied with Milwaukee’s for the fewest of any team in the NBA so far, and their nine-game losing streak is second in length only to the Bucks’ 11-gamer that soaked up most of November.
New York’s ongoing skid also happens to be the franchise’s worst since 2006, when Isiah Thomas was still keeping an eye on things at Madison Square Garden.
The Nets, on the other hand, have been “fortunate” to avoid losing more than five consecutive games, as they did from Nov. 16-24.
From a purely basketball perspective, though, Brooklyn’s situation would seem more depressing than New York’s. The Nets’ rotation has been riddled with injuries, between Andrei Kirilenko’s back, Jason Terry’s knee, the ankles of Deron Williams and Brook Lopez and now Paul Pierce‘s broken hand.
Kevin Garnett‘s age-related restrictions and Joe Johnson’s own march over the hill have only compounded Brooklyn’s personnel problems.
With so much of the team’s core either limited, shuffling into and out of the rotation or sidelined entirely, the Nets have had little time to jell in a way that would allow their true talent to shine through. According to NBA.com, the five-star lineup of Williams, Lopez, Johnson, Pierce and Garnett has been outscored by 14 points in the mere 78 minutes it’s appeared this season.
Not that those results wouldn’t improve over time. Any collection of players, no matter how talented, is bound to struggle at the outset as its constituents feel each other out and attempt to build chemistry with one another. Just ask last season’s Los Angeles Lakers or even the 2010-11 Miami Heat.
It doesn’t help, either, that the Nets lack a cohesive on-court identity.
So far, Brooklyn’s offense has been characterized by stagnant isolations and post-ups, with the stars awkwardly taking turns operating with the ball. Not surprisingly, then, the Nets rank 22nd in the NBA in offensive efficiency.
Brooklyn’s biggest problems, though, revolve not around scoring, but rather around stopping the opposition. The Nets are dead last in defensive efficiency, due in no small part to inconsistent pick-and-roll coverages, miscommunication and an overall absence of effort.
Chemistry connects all of the dots here, just as it underpins everything a team does on the defensive end, making the Nets’ lack thereof that much more glaring.
It’s no wonder that the Nets have been blown out as often as they have. Seven of their 13 losses have come by 10 points or more—including a 111-87 loss to the Denver Nuggets at home on Tuesday—as opposed to four such defeats for the Knicks.
That disparity in dismal nights goes a long way toward explaining the gap in point differential between the two teams—minus-7.6 for Brooklyn versus minus-6.3 for New York.
To be sure, the Knicks aren’t that much better off, though at least this team has an identity of some sort.
New York won 54 games and secured the second seed in the East last season on the strength of a small-ball squad that played a ton of pick-and-roll (particularly with Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler), frequently featured lineups with multiple point guards, jacked up threes like no team ever had and cleared space for Carmelo Anthony to operate.
Of course, this edition of the Knicks isn’t last year’s. They’ve fallen to 23rd in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency after ranking third and 18th in 2012-13.
The offensive collapse is particularly disconcerting. After finishing fifth in three-point accuracy and setting NBA records for takes and makes from beyond the arc, the Knicks are now shooting a subpar 32.2 percent from three, third-worst in the league, while hoisting long balls with only league-average frequency.
The defensive drop-off, on the other hand, has been entirely predictable.
Anytime you have to replace Chandler (out with a leg injury), a former Defensive Player of the Year, with the likes of Andrea Bargnani and Kenyon Martin up front, you’re gonna have a bad time. The Knicks’ decision to fully guarantee the salary of Chris Smith, the younger brother of J.R. Smith and current D-Leaguer with the Erie BayHawks, has further hamstrung their ability to cope without their starting center.
And as athletic and pesky as Iman Shumpert may be on the perimeter, he often falls victim to fouling and ball-watching, in addition to his myriad attempted thefts that come up empty.
Drama and Doldrums
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The Knicks’ poor play on both ends of the floor has landed Mike Woodson on the hot seat. This, after leading New York to 54 wins, its first Atlantic Division title since 1993-94 and its first playoff series victory since 2000.
According to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, the Knicks could look to replace Woodson on the bench with former contract albatross and GM-in-training Allan Houston, whose coaching experience is about as extensive as Kidd’s was. A bad loss in Brooklyn to extend the team’s losing streak to 10 games may well be enough to convince the powers that be at MSG that the time is nigh for such a shakeup.
Whether Woodson’s ouster would actually help the Knicks is another story entirely.
According to Al Iannazzone of Newsday, Woodson still has the support of most of his own locker room, even after the recent scuttle about the coach’s supposed “beef” with Iman Shumpert.
Even if such were true, Woodson wouldn’t be the only one in New York who’s had issues with Shump of late. The third-year swingman out of Georgia Tech got into it with Carmelo Anthony in the huddle during the Knicks’ 103-99 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans after the latter seemed to give up on a defensive assignment:
Anthony, too, denied being at odds with Shumpert (per Ian Begley of ESPN New York), whose welcome in the Big Apple may well be wearing thin. As the Daily News reported in mid-November, Woodson, team owner James Dolan and others within the organization were none too pleased with Shump’s offseason, which included a surreptitious arthroscopic procedure on his surgically repaired left knee.
That displeasure spawned a spate of November trade rumors, chief among them a possible swap with the Denver Nuggets that might’ve landed Kenneth Faried in Knicks duds.
Let’s not forget, either, about a recent closed-door confrontation between Metta World Peace and Kenyon Martin, which the former claimed stemmed from a disagreement over pasta preferences (via ESPN New York):
We were eating pasta — he had elbow pasta, I had shell pasta, and I told him how my shell pasta is better than his elbow pasta. And he was pretty upset about that. He loves elbows pasta, but I disagree, I think shell pasta is better. I don’t care. I will stand by that. Shell pasta.
Strangely enough, World Peace’s wacky explanation seems more plausible than the aforementioned denials of his coach and teammates.
In any case, it’s difficult to imagine last year’s Knicks descending into such a quagmire of drama. Their contingent of veteran leadership from the likes of Marcus Camby, Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace and Kidd helped to stabilize what’s since become a volatile locker room. As Anthony recently bemoaned after the Knicks’ loss in Denver (via the New York Post):
That makeup of the team was different [last year]. With J-Kidd, he was a leader in his own right. He wasn’t a vocal leader like a Rasheed [Wallace] or Kurt Thomas. He was leader by example on the court. His hard work, his play, everyone fed off that. And everyone led in their own way. Now we do miss that — J-Kidd, Kurt, Kurt and Rasheed. Last year as a team we were more synchronized than right now due to chemistry, due to having fun, due to just having one another’s back.
Kidd hasn’t yet had that same galvanizing effect from the bench as he once did on the floor, to say the least. Predictably enough, he’s struggled with the particulars of coaching, as any novice would.
The difference? Most rookie coaches don’t jump into the fire of the profession without any prior experience as assistants, much less mere days after hanging up their sneakers for good.
Kidd didn’t make things any easier for himself by dismissing Lawrence Frank, his top assistant and the man whose presence played a big part in convincing the Nets to gamble on the future Hall of Famer this past summer.
Kidd has clearly struggled with the growing pains of his new gig, but any coach, regardless of expertise and experience, would have a hard time turning the Nets into a competitive club right now. Four of their top seven players, including their top two or three (depending on how you place Pierce), are either out right now or have missed significant time due to injury.
Instead, Kidd has had to lean far too heavily on the likes of Shaun Livingston, Alan Anderson, Andray Blatche, Tyshawn Taylor and Reggie Evans to pick up the slack.
Finding Silver Linings
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It’s still too early to write off the Nets entirely.
They still have a ton of talent on paper. If everyone gets healthy in the coming weeks, Brooklyn could put together a late-season run like that of last season’s Lakers, who won 28 of their final 40 games under Mike D’Antoni.
A run like that would probably vault the Nets to the top of the terrible Atlantic Division and peg them for the top-four seed that seemed to be theirs coming into the season.
The same could be said for the Knicks. Unlike the Nets, New York has at least enjoyed the benefit of its best player (Carmelo Anthony) being healthy and productive throughout. Anthony currently ranks second in the NBA in scoring (26.3 points per game) and 11th in rebounding (a career-high 9.9 boards).
Their pick-and-roll offense and overall defense should improve once Chandler gets back. J.R. Smith will almost certainly get hot at some point, assuming his offseason knee surgery doesn’t hamper him throughout. Raymond Felton could join J.R. in that regard.
As far as the new guys are concerned, Bargnani, for all his shortcomings, has looked like a competent contributor on offense. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s apparent improvement (a personal-best 21 points vs. New Orleans) should deepen the Knicks’ bench while giving the front office further leeway to swap Shumpert for much-needed help elsewhere.
There may be hope yet for pro basketball in New York this season.
But if we assume that both teams heal up at some point—which is a big IF at this point—the Knicks would appear to be stuck in a tougher spot, if only because of the daily soap opera they’ve become. That constant drama, much of which emanates from the owner’s office, figures to either subsume whatever progress the team makes on the floor or prevent the players from coming together in any meaningful way.
Ironically enough, Dolan, a close confidant of and former boss to Isiah Thomas, doesn’t seem privy to Zeke’s secret of basketball—that it’s not really about basketball—on which Bill Simmons expounded in The Book of Basketball.
The Nets don’t have to deal with the same irritating flow of rumor and innuendo into and out of the locker room. Their owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, may resemble a megalomaniacal James Bond villain in many ways, but at least he’s not always meddling in the team’s day-to-day operations like Dolan.
Brooklyn also has the advantage of employing three players (Garnett, Pierce and Terry) who know what it takes to compete for a championship. KG and Pierce, in particular, are well versed in the ways of slow starts and subsequent turnarounds from their days with the Boston Celtics; the C’s were still under .500 well into February of 2012 during the lockout-shortened season before reaching the brink of the NBA Finals that spring.
In all honesty, the Nets should be in a better place than the Knicks. Brooklyn was expected by many to be the superior squad coming into the season and, relatively speaking, it’s held up its end in that regard.
Failures of the Future
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As far as the bigger picture is concerned, sussing out which team is better off is a task at which even Hercules might fail.
Both teams are pretty much screwed as far as the draft is concerned over the next half-decade or so. The Knicks are without picks in 2014 and 2016 and owe second-rounders in 2015 and 2017.
The Nets are in a slightly tighter bind. Their supply of picks is just as depleted, with the added impediments of having already promised away their first-round pick in 2018 and left their first-rounders in 2015 and 2017 susceptible to swaps.
What’s more, Brooklyn’s books are swamped with salary until at least 2016, even if Garnett and Pierce call it quits after this season. The Knicks, on the other hand, should be free to retool their roster as they see fit in the summer of 2015 once the contracts tied to Chandler, Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire expire.
That might not all be such good news for New York. The Knicks roster could be completely devoid of stars by then if Anthony opts to uproot his talents via free agency come July of 2014. The odds of him ditching his hometown to play in, say, L.A. seem slim, though his incumbent team’s free fall could be enough to convince him to look around a bit more.
Surely, ‘Melo, a perennial All-Star, wouldn’t want to tether himself to “the laughingstock of the league,” as he calls the Knicks according to Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York.
The Nets may not have any financial flexibility to speak of for another three years, but at least their money is tied up in a trio (Williams, Johnson and Lopez) that, if nothing else, can serve as the foundation for a passable playoff participant.
Good luck squeezing any competitive ball out of a Knicks club that doesn’t have Anthony to carry the scoring load.
If the Knicks are still a joke by the time their cap sheet comes clean in 2015, will any marquee free agents (i.e., Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo, etc.) really want to cast their lot with New York when the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and Chicago Bulls could all be among those driving up the bidding?
Maybe the Nets should be happy they’re not the Knicks. Maybe the Knicks should feel the same way about the Nets.
Or, maybe everybody would be better off not measuring the misery between the two and, instead, grabbing nose plugs and surgical masks on the way into the Barclays Center on Thursday night.