By Matt Straub
The Knicks and Nets play tonight, and the NBA season, while still in the early stages, already has some depth to it. If this were the baseball season it would be the beginning of May, and the NBA has reached the NFL’s equivalent of the end of Week 3. We’re nowhere near knowing how things are going to play out, but we’ve also seen enough to start analyzing trends.
So with another battle for New York on tap tonight and some information now at our disposal, it’s a good chance to take stock of where the teams are before they meet at the Garden tonight.
The stock is very, very low.
I’ll let Nets GM Billy King give you the short version of where the Nets stand as they head to MSG to face the team they were supposed to replace as the Kings of New York. "We're on the phones, we're talking to people, but nothing is imminent," he told ESPNNewYork.
Yes, the Nets are already working on trades. Imagine your NFL team looking to switch quarterbacks in Week 4 (OK, that’s not a big leap for Jets fans) or your baseball team thinking of breaking things up on May 1. To be fair, the changes the Nets make might not be as drastic as those scenarios, but that it is already painfully clear the Nets must do something is troubling.
Just two years ago the Nets traded their future to the Celtics in order to try and win now. It’s been a strategy they’ve employed ever since they acquired Gerald Wallace, accidentally giving up the chance at Damian Lillard in the process, in 2012. Back then they didn’t want to lose Deron Williams.
When they traded for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett before last season, they tried it again, mortgaging their future for a second time to try and build a quick contender. The second time their plan was foiled by a disastrous coaching decision, as Jason Kidd needed half the year to figure out how to do his job, and the team suffered because of it. By the time the Nets had things figured out, they had to face Miami earlier than they had hoped in the playoffs.
Now, with Pierce withering away in Washington and Garnett trying his best to contribute mentally with his own physical skills waning, the Nets are in search of a new answer. They let Kidd go to Milwaukee (where, to be fair, he has the Bucks playing well) and brought in Lionel Hollins, a defensive-minded coach.
One of Hollins’ main issues in Memphis was his fight to keep the traditional style of coaching intact, with motivation and old-fashioned film work being more important than computer spreadsheets.
I like the style myself, but it’s easier to coach a half court system with two great post players and a bunch of guys who want to play defense like he had in Memphis than it is with star guards, one injury-prone big and a team leader who can’t play most of the game.
The Nets roster isn’t bad, but it’s far from great. Williams is undergoing a resurgence, playing his best basketball in a long time, but shooting guard Joe Johnson seems lost. He has been playing a lot with Bojan Bogdanovic, which is a long way to say they Nets never replaced Pierce.
Brook Lopez is solid, but he’s no Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol, the bigs Hollins had in Memphis. Mason Plumlee hasn’t exactly grown into a star, either. The Nets are a perimeter defender or two away from being a poor man’s version of the Grizzlies, but those pieces aren’t there. If Brooklyn is going to win, it will need its guards to explode on a lot of nights, something only Williams seems capable of doing right now.
The good news is the Nets seem to have identified those issues, or at least the need to make some kind of move. Still, they seem to be stuck in neutral and on the way to a second consecutive blown attempt to win in the short term.
There is a piece of good news for Brooklyn. They aren’t the Knicks.
New York brought Phil Jackson in to be the decision maker on personnel, but also let him be the defacto coach by putting disciple Derek Fisher at the helm. Having Jackson running the show means installing the triangle offense, something the Knicks are still trying to do a month into the season.
In our season preview I said the Knicks, if healthy and with some chemistry and cohesion, could make the playoffs. Then Jose Calderon got hurt. Then Carmelo Anthony got hurt. And all this was after it was clear the Knicks were going to need more than a month to understand their new offense. A quick YouTube search will find you clips of the Knicks running into each other, or looking at each other in confusion, or throwing the ball away in laughable attempts at the offense. The search won’t find many great Knicks defensive plays, unless you watch old games from the 1990s.
Anthony missed a couple of games which might have been winnable with him, and in the very bad bottom of the East, every game matters. He’s back, and he’s questioning his team’s effort. Believe it or not, this is a good thing.
Yes, Anthony took the extra money to stay in New York, but he stayed. He wants to win there. So when he says things like, "sometimes we go out there and it’s like we don’t want to be out there," it’s a problem.
The Nets’ issue, besides a lack of superstars, is their decision to get a coach whose system doesn’t seem to fit the players.
The Knicks at least know what they want to be. They just have to figure out how to get there. In the meantime, the Knicks need to decide what to do with their transition period. In the next couple of seasons, they’ll end up with enough players who fit the triangle to change their losing ways. For now, however, they have to decide if they want to let this year slip away while seeing who on the current team fits the system or if they want to win games, which would involve giving the ball to Anthony and fitting things around him.
Anthony, despite his reputation, can fit into any system if he decides he’s willing to (see USA basketball). In our preview I said the season would come down to how well Anthony fit into the triangle and the supporting cast. It’s less than a quarter of the way into the year and it’s far from all Anthony’s fault, but he and the Knicks aren’t meshing in the triangle. The hiring of Jackson bought the Knicks a year with the fans, so he can stick with it and spend the year trying to make it work. If they scrap it now, they might make Anthony happy, but they can ask the Nets when they arrive what happens when you build your team trying to appease a star.
There’s a long way to go, but both teams appear to be on the way to lost seasons. Tonight might be a Battle for New York, but the battle might just be to decide who will be worse.