As of Wednesday morning, Feb. 3, the New York Knicks sit at 9-13, and the Nets are 13-9.
While the records are promising (albeit for different reasons) on their own, they are but a glimpse into the early seasons for both NY teams.
The Knicks, while four games under .500, were not expected to be good this year. Not by any stretch of the imagination. But a combination of youthful exuberance and savvy veteran play, bolstered by determined coaching, has the Knicks finally staring away from basketball purgatory.
And with the Nets promise in the short-term with the absurd collection of offensive talent at the team’s disposal, both NY teams (once again, for vastly different reasons) hold promise, and even with the Knicks, it’s not fool’s gold like so many years before.
Look around ye ol’ and faithful New Yorkers, and whisper that statement to yourself once again. “Both NY teams hold promise.” No one is going to berate you; you have finally made it to the tier of rightful optimism.
Speaking of the youthful exuberance, Immanuel Quickley is averaging 12.6 points in just 19.7 minutes per game. The 25th pick of the draft has been an extremely bright spot for the Knicks this season, looking adept as a shooter (his floater game is extremely strong especially for a youngster), as a decision-maker, and even as a floor general. The Knicks look like they finally have a point guard for the future, a position that has remained bleak for the franchise for years, exacerbated even more by the fact that the Knicks were one spot away from taking Steph Curry in the draft in 2009.
The other Knicks rookie, Obi Toppin (who happens to be a high school friend of mine), taken with the number eight pick in the draft, has been slower out of the gates this season. He is averaging just 4.6 points in 12.2 minutes per game. The lack of production can be attributed both to the fact that he suffered an injury just a few games into the still-early season, and the fact that the Knicks best player, Julius Randle, plays his position at power forward.
Randle, not yet a veteran in the purest sense, has been in the league for seven years now, and is having perhaps his greatest season yet. He is averaging a career-best 22.4 points per game, playing a career-high 36.6 minutes per game. Every dedicated NBA fan and Chicagoan knows Tom Thibodeau plays his best players big minutes. But if Randle didn’t get himself into great basketball shape this past summer, he wouldn’t be able to take on such a large responsibility that he has.
The Knicks, sometimes appearing as a mishmash of players on the court, are in the “playoff hunt,” so to speak, because of Randle’s strong play above all else. He has been awesome, and deserves strong consideration for his first NBA All-Star appearance.
The Nets, on the other hand, are on a completely different trajectory. After trading away much of the team’s depth and future first-round picks in the blockbuster deal for James Harden, the Nets are undeniably top-heavy. They have Kyrie Irving, James Harden, and Kevin Durant, who can outscore any team on any given night. Solid pieces around this big three include sharpshooter Joe Harris, big man DeAndre Jordan, and feisty guard Bruce Brown.
But it is slim pickings for the Nets when problems (like, let’s say injuries) arise. And even more problematic for Brooklyn, is the team’s putrid defense, which many basketball pundits called from a mile away.
In fact, in one of the most bizarre stats of all time, since the James Harden trade, the Nets have the worst defensive rating in league history. A testament to the team’s offensive prowess, they also have the best offensive rating in league history. And so the Nets find themselves in a conundrum. They can scour the trade and buyout markets for players, but is one decent player going to transform the team’s defense?
The Nets are in a position that Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni teams have often found themselves in before. They can score with anyone, but they couldn’t guard my grandma with the ball. Changes (internal or external) have to be made to the Nets defense if they want any shot at beating the best teams in the NBA.
Ultimately, the Nets need to figure out how they can improve around the margins, and then look outside from there. Until the team changes its defensive identity and attitude, they are not winning the NBA Finals.
As for the Knicks, the franchise is, for once, facing good problems. Competition ultimately makes winning players stronger, and shows front offices who they should value most. For a new front office led by Leon Rose, who has already made strong moves in drafting Quickley and signing veterans like Nerlens Noel and Austin Rivers, this will help them in the short-term and the long-run.
The Nets and Knicks are both exciting to watch, finally for the last time, for different reasons. And although there is room for doubt with both franchises, New York basketball is fun again. Let us bask in the joy of that one fact just for a bit.