In 2010, a couple years before the Brooklyn Nets first came into existence — with a shiny new building, a business plan built mostly around real estate, and Bruce Ratner (remember him?) implanted as Public Enemy No. 1 — the new Nets ownership put up a billboard across the street from Madison Square Garden. The billboard featured, narcissistically, two of the owners themselves — brash Russian billionaire (and onetime candidate for president of Russia) Mikhail Prokhorov and future inspiration for “Lemonade,” Jay-Z — with the slogan BLUEPRINT FOR SUCCESS. The message was clear, in typical swaggering New York City terms: the Knicks and the Garden have had their run, but it has passed, and the Nets and Barclays are the future. Seven years after that billboard went up, and five years after Barclays Center did, the Nets had the worst team in the NBA, Prokhorov was selling much of his share, and Jay-Z was cheering on the Warriors in the NBA Finals. Their mistake was acting like the Knicks: talking big, seeking headlines rather than smart investments, signing aging veterans to big dollars rather than young, cost-controlled talent. They acted like the Knicks, and they failed like the Knicks.
But they learned their lesson, unlike the Knicks. They pared down their payroll by acquiring expensive expiring contracts, endured several terrible seasons, concentrated on building a cohesive structure, got their management team in gear and all on the same page, and assembled an appealing team of low-cost castoffs who — last year, at least — significantly outperformed expectations. And now they have their reward. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, a dream combo of free agents, are coming to Brooklyn, one generational talent and one year-in-year-out all-star joining a franchise whose biggest previous stars were an over-the-hill Kevin Garnett, a slouching Deron Williams, and a yet-to-be-optimized Brook Lopez. This is a major event for the Brooklyn Nets — the major event — and yet it might say even more about the team across town, the one whose owner has been eroding goodwill for one of the NBA’s crown jewels year after year for literally decades now. The Knicks have been tanking for multiple seasons while in pursuit of Durant and Irving, who were assumed as recently as a month ago to be sure bets to join the team, in a bid to — finally — revitalize the franchise and reap the rewards of such a resurrection in the country’s biggest media market. And now the entire planet is pointing at the Knicks and laughing. It feels like the Nets have won and the Knicks have lost and there’s a new sheriff in town. But is there?
Let’s start with why a star like Durant would even want to sign with the Knicks, laughingstocks for so long you almost start to feel bad making fun of them. (Almost.) But the franchise retains a sort of tarnished aura: that building, all its history, all the business opportunities, all those stars (Clyde, Ewing, Riley, Oakley, Starks), Spike Lee, all the celebrities (basically everybody but Woody Allen anymore), and the mostly assumed fact that if you led the Knicks to their first title in 47 years, you would instantly become the most beloved athlete of this century in New York, maybe even the world. Now that the Cubs have won the World Series, winning a championship for the Knicks is one of the last globally canonizing achievements we have left.
We at least assumed Durant thought this way, because there were so many reports linking him to the team, and he had a certain chip on his shoulder about being transcendent. And besides, why else would anyone be interested in the Knicks? It’s the league’s most valuable franchise, but from a basketball perspective, the Nets are unquestionably the healthier franchise for Durant and Irving to choose. They have more talent on their roster, a more stable front office, no office parties where everyone has to pretend their boss’s band doesn’t make their ears bleed. And yet they don’t have nearly the platform the Knicks do. Last season, the Nets had a fun, exciting playoff team that was homegrown and invested in teamwork and a positive team culture; the Knicks were a horrible team that was actively trying to lose games. Nonetheless: The Knicks still outdrew the Nets by 4,000 fans per game. The cheapest Knicks ticket on StubHub for most games was usually around $150 with fees; you could get into Barclays Center for a playoff game for about that and for a regular-season game for about $25. If you’ve ever been to a Knicks game at Barclays, the crowd is still a majority-Knicks-fan crowd; if anything, a trip across the bridge is the cheapest, easiest opportunity many Knicks fans will have to see their team play in person. And when the Knicks host the Nets? Please. They might as well be hosting Sacramento or Memphis.
But Durant and Irving are making a bet that they can change all that. So — how much can these two signings change the underlying dynamic of the city? I don’t think all that much, actually. To begin with, isn’t this still a Knicks town? Won’t it always be? The Los Angeles Lakers have been run nearly as poorly as the Knicks in recent years, but they still got LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two of the game’s best five players, to join up. The Nets had to do everything exactly right, and even that required the Knicks to be as bad as they are — and owned by who they are — to earn the edge. And I bet it’ll still be tougher for a fan to get into MSG than Barclays over the next few years. The Knicks are too wound into the fabric of the city. Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson were talking about the Knicks at the Oscars this year. The Nets have no such capital. What does it mean to be a Brooklyn Nets fan? A Knicks title would cause grown men to weep in the street. Who cries over a Brooklyn Nets championship? The original investors in the property?
And then there’s the actual basketball. Durant will miss all of next season, and when he returns he’ll be coming off an Achilles tear, one of the most difficult injuries in sports. In the meantime, Irving is joining a cohesive team that’s stacked with young talent in a way that’s oddly similar to the Celtics one he just spent a full year emotionally tearing apart.
The irony is that, Dolan aside, the Knicks really have tried to do the smart things recently — avoiding pricey long-term contracts, investing in young players and the draft, trying to rebuild their roster and rethink how they do business — to make themselves look more attractive, to not just rely on the Knicks’ name and mystique. Their model for this is partly the Nets, who just succeeded in doing exactly that, but is probably closer to the Yankees, a team that invested in the minor leagues and young talent and then supplemented that with expensive free agents. Just six months ago, it was possible to dream of an MSG packed with fans to watch Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Durant, and Zion Williamson. Never mind that all three sort of play the same position — the star power would have been incredible, and anyway isn’t this a positionless league now? When they traded Porzingis to free up money in anticipation of signing Durant and Irving, you could still imagine a pretty spectacular dynasty beginning. Now, the Knicks obviously didn’t get their big fish (and this whole nightmare gets even worse if Porzingis turns out to be a superstar in Dallas), but they were smart enough to at least put themselves in a position to go after them, in part by assembling an appealing cast of role players. That might not seem like improvement, but it is, and their refusal to sign Durant stand-ins to massive long-term contracts in the wake of their rejection gives them an opportunity to make another run up the flagpole in a couple of years, when reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo hits the market. Is it a pipe dream? Maybe. But it is in fact a plan, something Knicks fans aren’t used to seeing. As awful as this turned out for Knicks fans … it still counts as improvement. Which might be the saddest part of all of this.
*This article appears in the July 8, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!