The Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks are both preparing free-agent pitches for July, but it’s clear that Brooklyn is the better option.
No, we aren’t talking about a better option to watch on a nightly basis. Although that’s true, this is about the upcoming summer — a pivotal one for both franchises occupying real estate in New York. But the city they occupy looks to be one of the few things the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Knicks have in common.
Since the move to Brooklyn (and while they played in Jersey for that matter), the Nets have been the forgotten team in New York. Even when they’re better than the Knicks, the Knicks are still the Knicks.
However, Brooklyn is emerging from the shadows and asserting themselves as a prime landing spot for the likes of Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, or any other top-tier free agents.
The idea that the Nets are a better fit for someone like Durant is beginning to gain traction. Entering the season, some felt that the Nets were a decent option in theory, but they weren’t at the top of anybody’s list.
The narrative leading up to the 2018-19 season was that the Knicks were a prime destination. They accumulated some nice young talent, hired a promising coach to man the sidelines, the front office seemed to be stabilizing, and of course, Kristaps Porzingis would be back eventually. Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly for the Knicks.
Things haven’t quite worked out as planned. The Knicks look destined to finish with 60 or more (probably more) losses. The defense is a sieve, the offense is anemic at times, and hearing about moral victories and growth is becoming tiresome. There are certainly positive signs to the development of young players—mainly Kevin Knox—but the overall growth of the team and the culture is taking some time.
Brooklyn, on the other hand, is hitting its stride. The Nets were up and down out of the gate with Caris LeVert was playing like an All-Star. Unfortunately, he went down with a gruesome injury and the Nets were forced to try and survive without their engine. A horrid eight-game losing streak had some wondering whether or not Zion Williamson was the answer to their prayers.
But the Nets rebounded from their atrocious stretch with a seven-game winning streak. Now they’re winners of 18 of their last 23. The best win of this scorching hot stretch came in Houston on Jan. 16. Spencer Dinwiddie led a scintillating comeback victory over James Harden and the Houston Rockets.
It was the team’s best win of the season. It was Kenny Atkinson’s best win as a head coach. Heck, it’s probably the best regular season win the franchise has had since moving from New Jersey to Brooklyn.
But most importantly, it was an in-your-face example of why the Brooklyn Nets are the clear choice for any max free agents looking to settle in the Big Apple.
Losing A Star Player
The Nets and the Knicks both lost their star at different times in 2018. The Knicks lost Porzingis in February of 2018. He’s still out with no specific timetable for return. The Nets lost LeVert in mid-November of the 2018-19 season, but he’s supposed to return sometime this season.
How each team responded to the loss of its star is telling. The Knicks finished the season 6-21 without Porzingis and they’re currently 10-36 during the 2018-19 season. Between both seasons, New York has amassed a record of 16-57 since Porzingis’ fateful injury.
As mentioned previously, the Nets struggled after losing LeVert. They were 2-10 in their first 12 games without the rising star. But since then, the Nets have won 18 of their last 23, giving them a record of 20-15 since LeVert’s unfortunate injury.
Obviously, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that when both are healthy, Porzingis is the vastly superior player. KP is a bonafide All-Star and LeVert is more of an All-Star hopeful.
But we’ve learned something about each team in the wake of losing their best player.
If there’s anything that Porzingis and LeVert’s injuries have taught us, it’s that the supporting cast in Brooklyn is far ahead of the team that calls Madison Square Garden home.
The Knicks are hopeful that guys like Kevin Knox, Allonzo Trier, Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina, and Damyean Dotson develop into players that can fill vital roles. They’re hoping that a superstar will bank on these players developing into a cohesive unit.
A superstar won’t need to worry about Brooklyn developing these types of role players. Spencer Dinwiddie was a legitimate Sixth Man of the Year candidate prior to his recent injury. Joe Harris could be a top-five three-point shooter in the NBA. And Jarrett Allen is a 21-year-old that can play above the rim on either end of the court. D’Angelo Russell is having an All-Star season. But his future with the team is a bit murkier based on his contract situation.
All of these players were developed in Brooklyn’s incubator and they are having breakout seasons. They appear ready for the big moment in a way that the young guys on the Knicks aren’t yet. The Nets appear destined for a playoff spot as well, further proof that this team is readymade for a superstar to take them to the next level. A deep run in the Eastern Conference or even a trip to the NBA Finals would feel possible for this team with Durant in the lineup.
Moreover, playoff experience is a vital part of growing as a team. For Brooklyn, just qualifying for the playoffs will bolster their case as a prime free agent destination. The supporting cast will experience the big stage and even if it results in a sweep at the hands of a superior team, they’ll be better off in the long run.
The Knicks supporting cast will get no such experience this season. They could finish the season with somewhere around 65 losses. Consequently, that could cause some free agents to shy away from Madison Square Garden.
Both teams have been beacons of dysfunction in recent years. The Nets are finally out from under the crippling Boston Celtics trade. They’ve built a solid culture that is translating to wins on the court. On the other hand, the Knicks have mostly new leadership working to change the narrative and install a winning culture.
For a superstar worried about joining an organization that will revert to old habits, the Nets appear less likely to suffer a relapse. Much like the supporting cast, the Nets are at least a year or two ahead of the Knicks in terms of establishing that winning culture that is always a part of the narrative around a new regime.
The national narrative surrounding the Nets has shifted dramatically this season. They are relevant once again. Any sane person would agree that the Nets would be lucky to advance past the first round of the playoffs. But they are clearly better than anyone expected them to be.
They’re ahead of schedule and the only hint of dysfunction this season came from Kenneth Faried’s recent comments about his short tenure in Brooklyn. Furthermore, an eight-game losing streak that put the spotlight on Atkinson feels like ancient history after the team’s recent hot streak.
While the Nets are the hottest team in the league, the Knicks are showing concerning cracks in the culture. Enes Kanter is heated after a miscommunication with head coach David Fizdale and his staff. Meanwhile, Trier is publicly throwing a teammate under the bus and Tim Hardaway Jr. is not happy about it. Obviously, these are minor issues in the grand scheme of things. Kanter’s tenure in New York is ending fast and Trier is a rookie who made a mistake. It’s hard to give the Knicks the benefit of the doubt on this based on the past decades. Then again, general manager Scott Perry has gotten a lot of things right up to this point and Fizdale has done a solid job thus far. Therefore, they should get some slack.
But the more concerning issue comes with Kristaps Porzingis. The Latvian is a big part of the Knicks’ pitch. But he has a history of friction with the front office and coaching staff. Most recently, Porzingis took to Instagram to call BS on his coach’s comments about his recovery. Fizdale clarified his comments and jumped on the media grenade, but the miscommunication was a concerning sign nonetheless.
If star players see Porzingis unhappy with the organization, why would anyone be willing to sign a long-term deal to play for New York? Furthermore, if Porzingis doesn’t play this season, can a star be completely sure that the Knicks’ unicorn will return to his previous form?
The Problem With Tanking
The Knicks aren’t tanking in the classic sense that harkens memories of the 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers. That being said, they are prioritizing player development over winning—which isn’t a bad thing by any stretch. But even if the Knicks lose every single game for the rest of the season, they will only have a 14 percent chance of landing the coveted Zion Williamson.
Moreover, the Knicks would only have a 52 percent chance of landing a top-four pick. So the chances that the Knicks drop to the fifth pick in the draft is essentially a coin flip. That’s bad news considering the dearth of talent in the upcoming draft. Williamson has the potential to be a generational talent, but the rest of the draft class should still be viewed with some skepticism.
All this will be a moot point if the Knicks cash in on their likely 14 percent chance and they can add “Zion Williamson” to their free-agent pitch. But if New York doesn’t luck into the first pick in the draft, that free-agent pitch becomes considerably weaker.
On the flip side, Brooklyn has its first-round draft pick for the first time in what feels like a century. They also hold the rights to the Denver Nuggets’ first-round pick. Additionally, Marks and Atkinson have a history of developing undervalued players. The Nets won’t have Zion Williamson to entice a free agent, but they will have a strong history in player development. That may not be as sexy as the first-overall pick, but it’s meaningful nonetheless.
Plain and simple: The Brooklyn Nets are a far better option for free agents than the New York Knicks. This is indisputable fact. They have a strong supporting cast and they’ve shed any signs of their old dysfunction. Equally important, they have a history of developing excellent role players—the kind that can coalesce around a superstar.
But that doesn’t mean the Knicks are in a bad place. New York is a couple of years behind the Nets in terms of developing players and organizational stability. If they can develop some of their young talent and Porzingis becomes the generational talent the team hopes he can become, they’ll be just fine.
But when guys like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are assessing their options this summer, they would be crazy to pick the Knicks over the Nets.