NEW YORK — Since Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z became the faces of the Brooklyn Nets, the objectives of their mission have been made abundantly clear: Become relevant, move to Brooklyn, be better than the Knicks, steal the market.
General manager Billy King made the deals and Prokhorov wrote the checks. The Nets embarked on an unprecedented spending spree this past summer and not only retained Deron Williams, but also surround him with some capable talent. Clearly, they are relevant. And yes, they are in Brooklyn.
Whether or not they can best the Knicks remains to be seen. But crazier things have happened.
Despite an up and down season, the Knicks managed a respectable 36-30 record last season. Under Mike Woodson, they won 18 of their final 24 games and were a much better than advertised defensive team.
And coming into this season? One could (and probably should) argue that the Knicks will be better.
There are some obvious caveats, however. Though their uncertain point guard situation has been rectified, Raymond Felton’s conditioning and rekindling of the chemistry he once had with Amar’e Stoudemire will have a major say in how the team collectively fares in 2012-2013.
Jason Kidd and Marcus Camby must each find ways to contribute and stay healthy, despite their respectively ripe ages of 39 and 38.
Until Iman Shumpert is able to return to action, Ronnie Brewer will have to replace his defensive presence, and that will be no easy task.
And most importantly, Woodson will have to find a way to melt the collective talents of his team—and especially Carmelo Anthony and Stoudemire— into a homogenous basketball machine.
But when you step back and collectively examine this team, it’ll become clear that the Knicks’ three most talented players—Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and Stoudemire—are flanked by a unit whose collective basketball talent is far superior to the clique that took the court last season. Landry Fields and Jeremy Lin have been replaced by Brewer, Felton, and Kidd. Jared Jeffries and Josh Harrellson were essentially swapped out for Camby and Kurt Thomas. J.R. Smith, Steve Novak, and Shumpert all remain, and with a full training camp, Stoudemire’s reported desire to play in the post, and the coach that helped to steer the ship to a .750 win percentage over the final weeks of the season should have those that credit themselves with knowing the NBA a bit more optimistic about the Knicks’ immediate future.
But it would be a sad mistake to discount the marvelous job that King and his staff have done with retooling the Brooklyn Nets. Obviously, retaining Williams was a monumental move for the franchise, but so was the acquisition of Joe Johnson. Johnson, though supremely overpaid, is a great NBA guard. And his partnership with Williams will allow each to play off the ball more and free them of the burden of having to score 25 points each night to give their team a chance to win.
After being stuck in mediocrity in Atlanta, Johnson’s best fit in this league is probably as a second scorer who has the green light to look for and created his own offense 10-12 times per game, and take 6-7 open looks created for him by point guard penetration or post play kick-outs. Brook Lopez—if healthy—is at least a respectable presence in the paint and Williams has never had a problem with getting guys good looks. There is no reason to believe that this triumvirate will not work from day one.
As always, we’ll assume their health. And we’ll also assume—rather reasonably—that both Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries will continue to play the type of blue collar basketball that got each of them paid eight figure salaries by Prokhorov. And though the Nets’s relatively shallow bench leaves something to be desired, there’s no arguing that C.J. Watson and his acceptance of the veteran’s minimum was a major win.
MarShon Brooks, Reggie Evans, and rookie Mirza Teletovic will round out what should be a very respectable nine-man rotation for the Nets. The roster now features two perennial All-Stars (Williams and Johnson), one former All-Star (Wallace), and one 24-year old center, Lopez, who may have the potential to become one. The Nets will also benefit greatly from the fact that the constant speculation and distraction about Williams’ future is behind them.
Williams is fully committed to this team, and his effort and dedication will certainly reflect that.
So, the stage has been set. The 2012-2013 NBA season will be the year that the Knicks and Nets—playing in the same city for the first time—will begin a rivalry that will probably be more competitive than most think. There is a healthy sect of Knicks supporters who—over the years—have grown wary of Jim Dolan’s questionable antics and franchise decisions, and there’s a sect of Brooklynites who are eager to support a team that will be playing in their borough.
The stage has been set for an all-out turf war.
As it stands right now, it’s probably fair to say that the Knicks have a more talented roster. Its healthy starting five of Felton, Shumpert, Anthony, Stoudemire, and Chandler—on paper—is probably better than the Nets starting five of Williams, Johnson, Wallace, Humphries, and Lopez. That’s especially true when you consider that Chandler—last season’s Defensive Player of the Year—should have no trouble neutralizing Lopez.
And on paper, the top four Knicks off the bench—Kidd, Smith, Brewer, and Camby—may not contribute much offensively, but may not have to in order to ensure the team’s success, since all four are capable defenders. For the Nets, Watson, Brooks, Teletovic, and Evans probably couldn’t collectively outplay them, either.
But here’s the thing: Basketball isn’t played on paper.
And at this point, though the Knicks are a more talented bunch, their caveats and questionable chemistry make declarations of their Eastern Conference supremacy premature. And though the Nets have questions of their own, it’s clear that their top five pieces seem to fit a bit more naturally than those of the Knicks.
At the end of the day, the expectation here is that the NBA’s Atlantic Division—once its laughingstock—will be a dogfight. The Knicks, Nets, Celtics, and Sixers will have trouble distancing themselves from one another, and will probably be battling for playoff positioning during the final weeks of the regular season. It may be reminiscent of the 2008-2009 NBA season, when the Southwest Division saw four of its teams qualify for the playoffs.
That year, the San Antonio Spurs (54-28) won the division, but only finished up five games better than the fourth-in-the-division New Orleans Hornets (49-33).
On Thursday, November 1, the Nets will play the first game in their new building against the Knicks.
And over the next three years, New York City should be engulfed by a turf war that will probably pit superior talent against superior chemistry.
The battle for New York City is on. And it’s going to be more competitive than most probably think.
Moke Hamilton is a Senior NBA Columnist for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.