By Matt Straub
I’ve been toying with different ways to provide more NBA content for the website, since there seems to be quite a bit of interest in the New York teams this year. I wrote last time about how terrible it would be to see the two New York basketball team miss out on this chance to recapture the magic of basketball in New York. The Garden is a special place and Brooklyn had done such a good job of creating buzz around the Nets that this year can bring about the start of a rebirth of the sport in the nation’s hotbed of everything. I’m a fan of basketball and I want the sport to thrive in New York like it did when I was a kid and the Knicks were making runs at the title.
There’s another reason this year is so important to the city’s basketball future, however. Winning this season and creating that buzz could be the only way to keep the future of New York basketball bright.
When the Boston Celtics, the team I actually root for, made their second trade in two weeks Wednesday, they earned at least two more draft picks. No one in New York cares about that, but you should care about this: the Celtics now have more picks in the next two years than the Knicks and Nets have between them in the next five years.
There are a couple of caveats. First, the Celtics are trying to acquire assets to rebuild either through the draft or by making trades with all their picks this summer. Secondly, they have several of the Nets’ picks from last summer’s big trade, which bolstered their total and hurt Brooklyn’s
Brooklyn was also going for a championship. A playoff team which already had a decent core added two future Hall of Famers who were going to be asked to be part of the solution, not to drag the team along the way Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce had to do in Boston. Adding those two in complimentary roles seemed worth giving up most of their draft picks for years to come.
There are problems with the plan, however, and I’m not even talking about what a disastrous start the team got off to (though things are turning around quickly). First, Brooklyn can’t use the draft to slowly replace aging players who are ready to move aside. Secondly, there won’t be young players in the shorter term to learn under those stars. Third, if the Nets have to make a trade to replace an injured player, they can’t use picks to sweeten any offers. They’ll have to deal strictly from their current roster, which includes players who will only be useful to other teams trying to win now, making it hard to find a trade partner.
Even if all else fails, the NBA’s “Stepien Rule”, which prevents teams from trading their first-round pick in consecutive years, means Brooklyn will get some new blood in 2015 and 2017. This should be good news. Even those picks, however, come with danger, as Atlanta (2015) and Boston (2017) can swap picks with Brooklyn if they choose to. So if Boston is good again by 2017 for example, and Brooklyn is bad, the Celtics will get the lottery pick. The same is true of the Hawks next year.
The next time the Nets are guaranteed to possess their own first-round draft pick is 2019. We’ll be well into the presidential campaign which comes after the one which hasn’t started yet by then.
All these issues give the Nets one choice: make the present create the future. If the Nets win now and make it cool to be a Net, they can replace their aging stars with free agents. One of the reasons the Lakers never take long to rebuild is that they always have people who want to play for them. If the Nets can make playoff runs this year and next, the great marketing they’ve done and their track record will make people want to go there. Eventual cap space will help, too. With no viable alternative method of rebuilding, it could be the Nets’ only chance to make sure 2019 isn’t the next time there’s hope in Brooklyn.
Fans of the Knicks are going to point to the Lakers and say, “see, rebuilding is easy, we can do that, too.”
History, however, doesn’t bear this theory out. Sure, the Knicks had a lot of problems in the last decade relating to a certain former GM and legendary point guard, but what the Knicks’ darkest days taught us was that you can’t just rely on getting a new superstar, even in New York. If your franchise isn’t deemed a destination, no amount of history will help you. The Knicks will forever owe Amare Stoudemire for breaking the seal and being the first big-name player to want to go to the Knicks, paving the way for the likes of Carmelo Anthony. But getting Anthony any help has still proven difficult, as evidenced by the seemingly monthly rumor of another big star on the way which never materializes. Anthony’s contract year is coming quickly, and the Knicks must decide what to do. Do they trade him for young assets and risk not being able to get another star to come to the Garden and hearkening back to the dark years? Do they resign him and pray they can get a Robin to his Batman like Rajon Rondo?
The easiest way for the Knicks to convince the stars to come to New York is to keep winning. It’s easy to forget after the last couple of months just how close the Knicks have been to contention. Two years ago the Knicks were a bad quarter away from taking Miami to a Game 6, and last year they were 12 minutes away from a Game 7 against Indiana in the second round. Those aren’t great results, but they are a reminder of the building blocks already in place. New York’s recent turn, led in part by health and spectacular play from Anthony, could be the next building block. Another playoff push will keep the Knicks relevant in the minds of free agents.
Other than trading Anthony and getting a windfall, free agents are the only means by which the Knicks can rebuild. The Knicks won’t have their pick in this year’s star-studded draft, which will go to either Denver or Orlando. They will have it next year, but then don’t have any picks in 2016. The lure of New York and playing next to Andrew Wiggins isn’t a pitch the Knicks can make without trading Anthony, and there aren’t enough picks on the horizon to let the Knicks go young. The only paths to success for the Knicks are to convince Anthony to stay and win with him or fleece a team into giving up enough assets for him to rebuild. Since I don’t see the latter happening, New York’s only chance to stay relevant is to make another playoff run and make the Garden buzz like it’s 1994.
The Knicks started to turn things around during their Texas trip and are a game out of the playoffs as of this writing. They’ll likely have to play Miami or Indiana in the first round of the playoffs is they can get there, but that would just make the exciting games start sooner in the best basketball building still standing in the country. In a way, it would be perfect for the Knicks. If they draw Miami, the national television exposure would be immense, and the Knicks would play another relevant playoff series.
Unlike the last two years, however, the Knicks need to knock off the East’s goliaths. There’s no other option. Losing games only makes Denver’s future brighter.
It’s not now or never for either New York basketball team. But it very well could be now or 2019.