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SportsColumnistsBarbara Barker

Playoffs out of reach for Knicks and Nets, but hope is not

The Nets' Spencer Dinwiddie is defended by the

The Nets' Spencer Dinwiddie is defended by the Knicks' Frank Ntilikina at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Oct. 3. Credit: Steven Ryan

It’s never happened.

Not once in the 42 years since the Nets joined the NBA has our metropolitan area gone four straight seasons without hosting a playoff basketball game.

Sure, there have been significant stretches when the Nets were down. Ditto with the Knicks. Yet the one great thing about living in a two-team basketball market is that, in theory, we should have twice as many chances of having a team in the postseason.

So much for theories.

Unless the Nets jam down the accelerator on their slow but steady rebuild, we again will not have a team in the playoffs, which will set a historical low for the two teams. Neither has been to the postseason for three straight seasons, which ties the playoff-less mark that also was reached when both teams missed the playoffs in 2008-10.

So instead of postseason aspirations, what we again have is two teams entering the season in rebuild mode. Yet this still is an important season for both teams, especially the Nets, who are much further along in the process.

In their third season under the leadership of general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson, the Nets finally are starting to recover from the 2013 trade that stripped them of so many draft picks. Last season’s team finished with 28 wins, eight more than the season before. This season’s team should be able to improve by eight more, which means the Nets are approaching respectability.

The Nets don’t have a top-30 player, but they do have some very promising young talent, some new veteran depth, cap space to use in 2019 free agency and, finally, their own draft picks moving forward. Given that the Nets have at least 10 players in the last year of their deals, this season can be seen as one long audition, with the team deciding exactly whom it would like to keep.

“It’s the elephant in the room, and everybody knows that,” said Spencer Dinwiddie, who had a breakout season in 2017-18 after Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell were injured.

The player under the biggest audition spotlight this season is Russell, who three years after being taken with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft still has issues with consistency and decision-making. Russell, in the last year of his contract, has impressive physical tools, but the Nets actually were a better team when he wasn’t on the floor.

While the Nets will be making some final judgments on their talent, the Knicks should be trying to sort out who has the talent to be a future building block.

The Knicks have a new coach in David Fizdale and a year-old management team in general manager Scott Perry and president Steve Mills. What they don’t have is a top-tier player who isn’t injured.

Kristaps Porzingis, who remains the future of this team, won’t be back until at least February and could sit out the entire season after undergoing ACL surgery. Without Porzingis on the floor, this is basically a lost season, one in which the Knicks might not have 12 wins by the All-Star break.

With Porzingis out, the Knicks need to figure out specifically what they have and not worry about winning. They need to give big minutes to their young players, specifically Frank Ntilikina (last year’s first-round draft pick), Kevin Knox (this year’s first-round pick) and Mitchell Robinson (this year’s second-round pick).

There is a school of thought that the Knicks are walking a fine line here. They have high hopes for improving through free agency next summer and don’t want to be such a complete disaster that top players are discouraged from coming. There is a difference, however, between a downward-heading disaster and one clearly on the rebuild with a plan.

If Fizdale gets the team playing an up-tempo style of basketball rather than the triangle that was being played here a few years ago, and if at least two of the Knicks’ young players show some promise, free agents won’t be scared off by a bad record if they think they have a chance of playing with Porzingis when he returns.

Patience hasn’t been the strong suit of the Knicks’ organization for the past 20 years, but they can look across the river to the Nets to see how a few years of following a plan is starting to pay off.

Both the Nets and the Knicks could be significantly better after next summer if they play their cards right. If so, one day not too far down the road, New Yorkers may have a team to cheer for in the playoffs.

Just not this season.

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