Reasonably Biased Blogger Smackdown: Nets v. Knicks

New York Knicks Brooklyn Nets

New York Knicks Brooklyn Nets

New York is embarking on a unique season of basketball. Never have their been two professional teams, teams that actually play in this city (sorry, football), on this grand a stage and at this close a talent level, jockeying for city pole position. In honor of that recently renewed, borough-created rivalry between the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Manhattan Knicks, I’m happy to introduce Jared Dubin, Knicks fan and managing editor of HoopChalk and Hardwood Paroxysm. Hardwood Paroxysm recently released an unbelievably comprehensive 137-page NBA Season Preview breaking down all thirty teams. When I say it’s amazing, I mean it. Go check it out, download it, tell your friends, and revel in its one-act plays.

Jared and I share an innate, obsessive fandom for our respective teams. So we have to talk this out.

Dubin: So… this should be interesting.

It seems our teams are developing a bit of a rivalry, even if it only exists in the minds of the owners and fans at this point. There’s a lot of yapping coming from both sides, with the Nets talking themselves up as New York market equals and the Knicks talking down as if they still don’t exist. One thing’s for sure, there wouldn’t even be an opening for the Nets to take over the some of the market were the Knicks not owned by that guy from JD & The Straight Shot, right? And I know you have some thoughts on my assertion in the HP preview that the Nets are still the Nets, so why don’t you explain to me why they’re not?

Kharpertian: Well, of course there’s a rivalry here. What would a rivalry be if it didn’t exist in the eyes of the fans and the owners? That’s like saying a presidential race only exists in the minds of the voters. The players can say that there’s no rivalry, but in asserting ever-so-strongly that the Knicks are still New York’s team and no one would ever dare think the Nets have any shot, thy continue to build that rivalry further and further.

What’s so intriguing about the “still the Nets” comment is how closely it mirrors the flawed superstar’s opinion. Melo refused a trade to the Nets (and I thank him daily for it) because they were “those” Nets, and refused to acknowledge that they’re a significant threat this season because they haven’t proven anything. And to some degree, he’s right, the Nets haven’t. But neither have the Knicks! Their highest high from last season rode on Jeremy Lin’s back, and Lin’s in Houston now, replaced by overweight bulldog Raymond Felton and veteran leadership connoisseur Jason Kidd. It’s just odd to me to see “still the Nets” when the Knicks are the most bumbling franchise of the past decade, or as the franchise so eloquently put it, “always the Knicks.”

And sure, a lot of what gives the Nets some shot at success in this “rivalry” is that James Dolan is a sniveling snot-monster with a blues band whose authenticity is defined by sad mimicry. But the much bigger part of this, to me anyway, is that the Nets are not “still the Nets.” They have a re-tooled roster, and if healthy, are very good in ways the Knicks don’t compete with. Sure, the Knicks are better defensively when Tyson Chandler’s not playing 44 seconds, but the Knicks just have so many systemic problems on and off the court it’s not a stretch to argue that Brooklyn’s a better team. Prokhorov can do jet-ski flips over a floating James Dolan voodoo doll all he wants, but in the end it’s who wins the games that matters. So let me ask you this, Jared: do the Brooklyn Nets terrify you yet?

Brooklyn Nets

Dubin: The Brooklyn Nets really, really do not terrify me. It’s mostly because, even though I’m just barely 6-feet tall, have had two knee surgeries in two years, and have only barely dunked a basketball once in my life (I grabbed rim, the ball popped straight up in the air and through the hoop. It counts, damn it!), I’m about 99% sure I could drive right past/through/around Brook Lopez and dunk on his face. Kris Humphries too. I just can’t be terrified of a team that starts those two guys on the back line.

Anyways, I think you’re probably right about the rivalry thing. The Knicks’ constant assertion that the Nets are not their rivals builds the Nets up as an actual rival, in its own way. The reason I say there really is no rivalry is because I honestly can’t remember a time, at least during the course of my life, where the two teams were actually good at the same time. There’s been one playoff series between the two since I’ve been alive, it was 9 years ago, and Isiah Thomas, Stephon Marbury, Shandon Anderson, Tim Thomas, Mike Sweetney, and Vin Freaking Baker were involved. The last time these two teams played a playoff game, Jason Kidd was 30 and on the Nets. There just haven’t been enough important games for me to consider the rivalry a real thing.

But maybe you’re right. The fans on both sides certainly seem to despise each other already, which is half the battle. Half my mentions on Twitter are Nets fans calling me a Knicks homer and putting down the team in some way, and then other half are Knicks fans who think I hate the team. Knicks fans constantly refer to the Nets as a joke, a sideshow, a team not worthy of being in the same sentence as the Knicks. And Nets fans refer to the Knicks as a joke, a sideshow, a team not worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as the new-look Nets. It’s quite the dynamic.

My whole still the Nets shtick was more based on the Nets’ assertion that they were going to take over the market, and, to steal Proky’s words, steal Knicks fans. I just don’t think it can be done, at least not in one season. The Knicks have been here forever, and if you can say one thing about New York fans: they’re diehard loyalists. To me, there’s just no way the Nets become more popular inside of a year’s time. And if they aren’t immediately successful right out of the gate, those Brooklyn hipsters might abandon ship real quick. We know they only like the cool things. Losing isn’t cool. Which brings me back to Lopez and Humphries. How to the Nets expect to win with a back line of defense that porous?

New York Knicks
The Knicks celebrate after their 97-95 preseason victory in overtime.

Kharpertian: I’ll agree with you there — the Nets aren’t stealing hordes of Knicks fans overnight. I was in Nassau Coliseum the other night, and the entire night was underscored by the huge, huge population advantage that the Knicks had fan-wise in the arena. I said last night that Knicks jerseys outnumbered Nets ones by about 50-1 in the stands, and that was a conservative estimate. Last night’s crowd evoked an interactive timeline: the Nets have sold a lot of jerseys since April, but the Knicks have sold — and played — far more since 1946. The Knicks have just been here longer, and only time will change that.

I do think you’re underselling the rivalry, though. It’s not about the past (c) Mark McGwire. It’s about the future. The Nets-Knicks rivalry across states always felt forced, for a lot of the reasons you outlined — they never really crossed paths as good teams, and Newark will never rival Manhattan. But Brooklyn’s different. Brooklyn’s the biggest borough in New York City. People from Brooklyn don’t hide from their roots like people from New Jersey feel pressured to. The popular representation of Brooklyn isn’t spraytanned fist-pumps. The Nets stomped their way into New York, have earned their spot roster-wise, and now Manhattan has to deal with it.

But onto the court — and the rivalry’s here, too. You’re right, losing ain’t cool. I’ll concede that Brook Lopez, at his absolute best, is a mediocre defender, and even then he’s better than Kris Humphries at packing the paint. That is the main concern for the Nets going forward, and it’s why they’re not a championship contender today. But outside of that? Where do the Knicks have any advantage? Manhattan runs an iso-heavy ballhawk offense predicated on how comfortable Carmelo Anthony is with his jumper on a scale of “most of the offense” to “all of the offense.” Amar’e has gotten so bad that you could argue the team’s better off without him because that forces Melo to the 4 — except Melo’s treating the 4 spot like he’s a second small forward. Half of the team’s bench was past its prime a decade ago, and Madison Square Garden might as well sell Mike Woodson marionettes.

So yes, the Nets will struggle defending the rim (and, to some degree, rebounding). But the Knicks will struggle everywhere else. Joe Johnson can abuse every matchup the Knicks can throw at him. Gerald Wallace will somehow maniac his way into every possession. Deron Williams can pound Raymond Felton’s newfound intensity into submission. The Nets have all sorts of options, everywhere. The Knicks don’t. Or do they?

Dubin: The Nets do have all sorts of options on offense, I’ll give them that. And the immediate chemistry between Deron Williams and Joe Johnson (SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT – h/t Andrew McNeill) should pay dividends early and often. But I wouldn’t be so quick to say Johnson can abuse any match-up the Knicks can throw at him. Ronnie Brewer, though coming off an injury, is an extremely capable defender, and when Iman Shumpert comes back, the Knicks can switch up their looks on Joe, who popularized Woodson’s Iso himself before Mr. Potato Head came to coach the Knicks.

And though you might be right about Amar’e – it remains to be seen if you are, when he comes back from his latest injury hopefully in better shape than he was post-lockout – pushing Melo to the 4-spot does give him a huge matchup advantage with Humphries guarding him on the other end — if Woodson decides to use it. And the rebounding disadvantage they’d have at that spot is at least somewhat mitigated by the Chandler-Lopez rebounding mismatch.

The truth is, both of these teams can create mismatches against each other. No one on the Knicks will be able to contain Deron, with the exception of maybe Shumpert (and likely not, since no one really shuts down Deron), and that’s if he comes back full strength this season. Gerald Wallace might be able to guard Melo for stretches, but if the Knicks slide Melo to the 4, Hump sure as hell can’t. Lopez draws Tyson away from the hoop on one end; Tyson abuses him in pick-and-rolls on the other. It goes on and on.

What’s most interesting about these teams is that they’re pretty much polar opposities in every imaginable way. The Nets are buoyed by their superstar backcourt, the Knicks by their frontcourt. The Nets will try to outscore teams, the Knicks shut them down. The Nets ownership can’t stop talking, James Dolan hasn’t spoken to anyone about the team in over five years. Jay-Z’s been to a bunch of Knick games in the past few seasons, he barely ever went to Newark. (Sorry. Had to.) The Knicks are selling tradition and leadership, the Nets are shiny and new. The Knicks even took the black out of their jerseys this year because that’s Brooklyn’s thing now.

I want to address one last point: “So yes, the Nets will struggle defending the rim (and, to some degree, rebounding). But the Knicks will struggle everywhere else.” I’m not entirely sure that matters, at least in terms of the Nets overtaking the Knicks in New York, or in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. It speaks to something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and that Zach Lowe tweeted to a fan the other night: why are the Nets, and especially their fans, so concerned with the Knicks faults? Don’t they have enough to worry about with their own team?

Kris Humphries Carmelo Anthony

Kharpertian: Isn’t that’s part of the point of this rivalry? Teams and their fans going back and forth; comparing, contrasting, spinning anything they can in an effort to prove that my team has a Herculean grace while your team is full of ancient lardmongers. I brought up the differences between the team, because, well, we’re talking about the differences in the teams. Heck, you brought up the same things — and not just here, you wrote a whole section in the HP Preview about why the Nets suck (seriously guys, go check out that preview). That’s not particularly out of place, it’s just the nature of this fueled beast.

I do agree with you in a broader sense. The Nets aren’t trying to go after the Knicks: like everybody else in the conference, they’re trying to go after the Heat. But this comparison isn’t solely linked by bridges; along with playing miles from one another, the Nets and Knicks make for a unique style contrast. The Nets have an offensive-minded team with a defense-first coach with the nickname “The Little General.” The Knicks are a Tyson Chandler-first, offense-rest team with a laissez-faire approach to superstar management.

But at the same time, I wonder how much of your theoretical mismatches will actually play out that way. According to Synergy, in the few possessions Carmelo Anthony’s been switched onto Kris Humphries in the regular season in isolation and pick-and-roll plays, he’s never scored on him. Not once. Melo has that odd tendency to not attack guys he thinks he can beat. Maybe in his mind he’s already got them beat, and the way he shoots is irrelevant. On the flip side, the Nets don’t really have anyone that can contain Melo — they just have to hope he can contain himself. Tyson Chandler is longer, stronger, and faster than Brook Lopez, but Lopez has never had a bad game against him. There’s a lot of things we can both hope for, but to see it play out is another matter.

And to that, I think you and I can both agree on one thing: the games can’t come soon enough.