It’s hard not to shake your head in disbelief when you look at the fortunes of the Knicks and the Nets over the past year.
Last October, both teams were in rebuild mode. The Nets were further along in the process, but the Knicks – at least we all thought– were poised to have a huge summer in both free agency and the draft.
So what the heck happened? Because it’s difficult to imagine the Knicks having had a worse 12 months or the Nets having had a better.
Who would have thought heading into last season that the team from Brooklyn would improve by 14 wins, make the playoffs, land the two biggest names in free agency and then find themselves labeled the cool team in town? Um, certainly not me, who predicted that the Nets would continue to steadily improve but weren’t likely to be in the postseason.
Some savvy team building by general manager Sean Marks and solid player development by coach Kenny Atkinson has taken a franchise that was mired in a prolonged post-Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett hangover to one that is just a healed Achilles tendon away from being a contender.
That’s right, contender. With the signing of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets jammed down the accelerator on their rebuild. Yes, the team has said that Durant will miss the season as he recovers from the Achilles injury he suffered in the NBA Finals. What they haven’t said is if missing the season also means missing the playoffs. The assumption here is that the team will be cautious, but if the Nets are playing well late in the season and Durant suddenly returns, they could go very deep.
Without Durant, the Nets are a playoff team. How good of a playoff team depends on how quickly this team of young role players can gel with Irving.
Irving, a premiere point guard, is an upgrade from D’Angelo Russell. Yet, he has a nasty rep of being a flaky teammate and questionable leader. Irving, however, was enough of a leader to have orchestrated his and Durant’s signing with the Nets. He should be motivated to show that he made the right decision.
“I’m real grateful to be here,” Irving said.
Beyond the new guys, the Nets also need to see further development from their young players, especially Caris LeVert, who has the potential to become the team’s No. 3 star. The team’s best two-way player, LeVert had a great start to last season before suffering a gruesome ankle injury and missing 42 games. He averaged 21 points to lead the Nets in their first-round playoff loss to the Sixers.
Finally, the pressure is also on Atkinson to prove that he can coach a team with big stars and big expectations. One thing in his favor? Durant is a big fan. The two-time NBA Finals MVP said he decided to come to the Nets after watching replays of Atkinson’s press conferences on YouTube. It’s always good to have the most important player on the payroll in your corner.
This, of course, is something the Knicks found out the hard way.
The beginning of the Knicks’ horrible year began when things went south with Kristaps Porzingis and they were forced to trade him to Dallas. Then, despite having torn their team down to the studs in order to get to max spots and a chance at the No. 1 draft pick, the Knicks whiffed with the big names in free agency and didn’t win the Zion Williamson sweepstakes despite winning a league-low 17 games.
It’s a very low bar, but there is some good news for Knicks fans this year: They won’t be as bad as they were last year.
The Knicks improved their roster and maintained some flexibility by signing a bunch of free agents to short-term contracts. Their top free agent addition, Julius Randle, was signed to a multi-year contract and is looking to prove that he is more than a free agent consolation prize. Randle, who averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds last year with the New Orleans Pelicans, will be the team’s top offensive option.
Also in the consolation prize department, No. 3 draft pick RJ Barrett needs to develop into a star given that he is the highest draft pick the franchise has had since Patrick Ewing in 1985. The team needs to give him plenty of floor time along second-year players Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox.
And that's the challenge for coach David Fizdale. Though not exactly on the hot seat yet, he does have a big challenge in the makeup of this roster as he attempts to keep veterans playing in contract years happy while developing his young core. Not the easiest of assignments.
The Knicks have the talent to win at least 10 more games than they did last year and if all the talk about playing hard-nosed basketball and improved defense is more than just talk, they could flirt with winning more than 30 games and landing at the bottom of the lottery.
Not exactly the season fans were envisioning a year ago. For either team.