Bernucca: Title contention a bridge too far for troubled Knicks, Nets

brooklyn bridgeThe Brooklyn Bridge is one of the great landmarks of our country.

And right now, it connects the home boroughs of perhaps the NBA’s two most disappointing teams this season.

Remember all the back-and-forth this summer between members of the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets? Jason Kidd retired from the Knicks to coach the Nets. Raymond Felton questioned his Knicks being ranked below the Nets. Paul Pierce said it was time for the Nets to start running the city. J.R. Smith called Pierce “bitter” about having to leave Boston.

All fun stuff to help fuel a rivalry that already had a pretty good fire raging over which was the best team in New York.

Now? Given the way the Knicks and Nets have started the season, the best team in New York might be the Gauchos.

Both teams are 3-6 and tied for last place in the Atlantic Division, which takes some doing. The Knicks can’t win at home. The Nets can’t win on the road. And both teams are having trouble defending, giving effort and in varying degrees of disarray.

Let’s start with the Nets, whose issues appear to be a bit less dramatic and a bit more correctable. They are the NBA’s only team whose entire starting unit has been an All-Star. But that has created a dynamic of too many chiefs and not enough indians.

Joe JohnsonBefore the season, Kidd declared that Joe Johnson – and not Pierce – would be his go-to guy. Late-game analytics show that to be the right choice. But that doesn’t mean Johnson should be the go-to guy for the first 3 1/2 quarters.

Right now, Johnson gets 11.4 shots and averages 12.8 points. Meanwhile, Pierce gets 9.6 shots and averages 13.5 points. And center Brook Lopez gets 13.5 shots and averages 20.5 points.

The guy who’s supposed to make this all work is Deron Williams, who admittedly is nursing a sore ankle that has limited his effectiveness while trying to acclimate himself to prominent new teammates. But as an All-Star point guard, he should be doing a better job of getting the right teammates – Lopez and Pierce – more involved.

That was evident this weekend, when Williams missed all but five minutes of games in Phoenix and Los Angeles due to a sprained ankle. Shaun Livingston, a pass-first point guard, took control of an offense that looked much more fluid. The ball didn’t stick nearly as much, and bit players such as Alan Anderson and Mason Plumlee were effective.

The Nets are 19th in scoring, 21st in overall shooting and 3-point shooting, and 24th in adjusted shooting, which factors in free throws and threes. Given their veteran presence and collective basketball IQ, those numbers should be better. They will be if Williams adopts a true pass-first mentality and runs the offense through Lopez and Pierce as the top two options.

The problems at the other end of the floor seem more glaring. It’s nice to have veterans, but there’s a fine line between experienced and old. No one would confuse the Nets for a team blessed with quickness or multiple BrookLopezSH1quality defenders.

The Nets have to defend with a scheme, and a lack of chemistry exacerbated by injuries has revealed huge holes. Brooklyn is 22nd in points allowed and 23rd in rebounding percentage.

Several times this season, Kevin Garnett has shown or blitzed the pick-and-roll, and the Nets have been burned because the baseline defender did not rotate into the lane. On Friday in Phoenix, Williams, Johnson and Livingston and Johnson could not stay in front of smaller guards Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, and the slow rotations left open shooters everywhere.

Kidd isn’t crazy about the team’s transition defense, which he believes is more than just a lack of quickness.

“It’s unacceptable,” he said after a blowout loss in Sacramento, of all places. “We don’t score, we hang our heads and then they score on the other end.”

Kidd began the season spending most of his time sitting on the bench and observing while receiving input from assistants Lawrence Frank, Joe Prunty and John Welch. On Brooklyn’s recent West Coast trip, he was much more animated, often up on the sideline and working the referees while exhorting his team.

Perhaps Kidd sensed some urgency with his veteran team, which may be viewing the drudgery of the regular season as an annoyance until the playoffs arrive. And there are still 70-plus games to tinker with combinations and rotations. As of now, however, the Nets seem better when there is a mix of experience and youth on the floor.

The Knicks seem better when they are not on the floor at Madison Square Garden, where they somehow have lost five straight games and are being booed on a regular basis. Last season, they didn’t suffer their fifth home loss until Jan. 11.

But this isn’t last season. Tyson Chandler was healthy last season. J.R Smith was well-behaved last season. Iman Shumpert was a factor last season. Amar’e Stoudemire played last season. And the Knicks gave effort last season.

Carmelo Anthony“We’re not getting it done from an effort standpoint,” superstar Carmelo Anthony said after Saturday’s 20-point home loss to the Atlanta Hawks, whom they had beaten on the road three days earlier. “It’s like we’re not even trying right now.”

That is evident on offense, where the Knicks are 23rd in scoring, shooting, assists and adjusted shooting, 20th in 3-point shooting (after setting an NBA record for makes last season) and 29th in free throw attempts. All of those stats reflect a lack of ball movement or aggression.

It is also evident on defense, where the Knicks are 23rd in opponents’ shooting and an awful 29th in rebounding percentage.

“When that happens defensively, we’ve got to figure out who we are and right I don’t know who we are,” coach Mike Woodson said. “That’s on me.”

Right now, the Knicks are a team with one option on offense and a huge hole on defense. And the Garden faithful might want to dial down the “Fire Woodson!” chants, because there’s not much he can do about it. Management has given him an inflexible, flawed roster built to play small ball around a volume shooter.

The Knicks look very much like the Philadelphia 76ers at the turn of the century, who repeatedly tried to find second options alongside Allen Iverson. None of them worked, primarily because of Iverson’s ball monopoly.

Those Sixers also had a premier rim protector in Dikembe Mutombo. But Chandler, New York’s rim protector, is out until at least late December with a broken bone in his leg. And the lane looks like an onramp. Even in their win over Atlanta, New York surrendered 56 points in the paint.

The only other center on the roster is Cole Aldrich. The Knicks could have had another center but instead chose to keep rookie guard Chris Smith, the unproven younger brother of J.R. Smith who has yet to dress this season.

Stoudemire is not an option because his gimpy knees have Woodson holding him out of back-to-back games while keeping him on a minutes restriction. Andrea Bargnani is not an option because he is a 7-foot small forward and a sieve on defense.

Iman Shumpert Knicks sleevesOn offense, Shumpert has been no better than rookie Tim Hardaway, which is probably why his name has surfaced in trade rumors. And J.R. Smith, last season’s Sixth Man Award winner, is shooting 22.6 percent from the field with a PER of 6.7.

All of this increases the burden on Anthony, who can become a free agent at the end of the season and may end up with a bad back carrying the hopes of a title-starved city on his shoulders.

The Knicks visit Detroit on Tuesday and host league-leading Indiana on Wednesday, two teams with supersized frontcourts. Following is a four-game road trip that takes them into December. On Dec. 5, they could easily be 5-11 when they visit the Nets, who may not be much better.

Both teams should cross that bridge when they come to it.

TRIVIA: Which team has gone the longest since its last playoff series win? Answer below.


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  4. jerry25 says

    As you said, the Nets problems are correctable, but the Knicks have ISSUES.

    I don’t no why, but there was no excuse not to have Lawrence Frank coaching the team for the 1st two games, and having a bigger role (when the camera is running). Finally after some complaints (I’m sure Billy King spoke with JKidd) Kidd has been standing up and being more vocal during games. The team shouldn’t feel embarrassed to see Frank involved. Noone should have expected Kidd to be at full speed in the first few months. It became more difficult when JKidd was sitting, because that required Frank to be passive too.

    However, where I disagree with the analysts, is that I see no Chemistry issue with the Nets, other than players occasionally overpassing because there are so many Star teammates. These players are unselfish and don’t even think about personal statistics.

    The first, second and third most important problem with the Nets has been injuries, which has been exaggerated by the most conservative trainer in the NBA.
    Even with all the shortcomings, if everyone was healthy, Nets should have been able to win every game this season.

    On Saturday AM, Brook Lopez told a reporter he expected to play. He wasn’t allowed to play vs. LAC. Meanwhile Derek Rose can have a slight groin sprain and he gets to play vs. Indiana, and plays a big role in the victory!

    Deron Williams complained about the trainer at the end of preseason, then quickly shut his mouth. Clearly DWill has wimpy ankles. His elevation hadn’t returned before the recent sprain. Last year he received Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injections during the All Star break and it seemed to do the trick. Now there is another opportunity while he isn’t playing, and no mention of PRP treatment.

    Andrei Kirilenko was an All Star too. He has only played about 53 minutes over 4 games this season. He’s their best defensive player and also every time he has played, Nets score more in the paint. If only AK could play 25 mpg, I’d rate his as the most valuable Net.

    No wonder they aren’t winning. It all can reverse if healthy.

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