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The Race for Fourth Place

To compete with each other, the Knicks and Nets are destroying themselves.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

One year in, the Knicks-Nets rivalry is a bit more of a hopeful theoretical than a concrete reality. For all the competition for headlines, the atmosphere of the actual games between the two teams hasn’t quite reflected the ongoing arms race, at least inside the arena. At Barclays, the crowd is roughly 50-50 Nets-Knicks fans, an even split that might be exciting when Florida and Georgia are playing a neutral-site football game in Jacksonville but isn’t exactly the snarling, hostile home-court advantage the Nets were hoping for in their brand-new building. And at MSG, the Nets have essentially just been “Opponent”—they generate a livelier atmosphere than when the Knicks play, say, the Sacramento Kings, but nothing compared to the Heat or the Lakers.

If that’s gonna change, this is the year. As the season tips off, the Nets have unleashed a full-fledged assault on the Knicks. Nets brass claim New York is big enough for two teams and two arenas, but the Nets have never made a secret of their desire to take the town from their rivals. (Remember those Jay Z–Mikhail Prokhorov billboards near MSG?) The Nets see the Knicks as a franchise that has grown fat and lazy with an owner who has lost touch. They see weakness.

So this off-season, unsatisfied with their successful but ultimately disappointing first season, the Nets attacked. First they brought in franchise icon (and recent Knick) Jason Kidd to coach. Then they made the all-in move to end all all-in moves, bringing in Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from Boston for one last championship run, a brash move that left Knicks owner Jim Dolan sputtering—trading for the Raptors’ Andrea Bargnani and then suddenly demoting general manager Glen Grunwald.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Acquiring Garnett and Pierce was a crazy, potentially devastating move, and it’s going to start a competition that might very well destroy both franchises—one in which each seems more focused on besting the other (often in the papers) than on competing with the rest of the NBA. It’s a kind of mutually assured destruction.

More than in any other league, in the NBA teams tend to think that if you’re not building a championship contender, you’re not building anything at all. Because one player can make so much difference in basketball, the number of teams that can legitimately call themselves championship contenders is extremely small—no matter how good Barry Bonds or Dan Marino were, they needed a supporting cast much more than Michael Jordan did or LeBron James does. And the need to build around superstars means there are no dark-horse champions in the NBA. In Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NHL, if you just sneak into the playoffs, you could get hot at the right time and win the whole thing. (Ask the St. Louis Cardinals or, for that matter, the New York Giants.) But of all the NBA title winners of the past 30 years, only three (the ’03–’04 Pistons, the ’07–’08 Celtics, and the ’10–’11 Mavericks) didn’t win multiple championships.

And, lately, the teams that do compete tend to follow a pretty clear pattern. This season, you can make an argument that only, oh, three teams can call themselves really legitimate title contenders: Miami, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. Let’s look at those three teams: How have they done it? Miami has the easiest answer: It has LeBron James, one of the best basketball players of all time. But San Antonio and Oklahoma City are perhaps more instructive—models of prudence in an era when the worst mistake a franchise can make is to give superstar money to the wrong guy. See, in the NBA, awarding a huge-money contract to a player who can’t live up to it is particularly catastrophic, because the salary cap is not only a cap, it’s also a ruler whacked across the knuckles of offending owners. Without getting too technical on you, the collective-bargaining agreement attempts to make every player affordable to every team, no matter the market, establishing a variety of more or less fixed salary levels into which teams can slot players. This means that, if you make a mistake on a big-ticket player, you can’t just sign another one to take his place. The NBA is not the league in which you can just throw money at talent.

Thus, the success of San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Those are two franchises, located in smallish towns with patient, loyal fan bases and generally sedate local media, that have taken the long view: Each found a superstar and built around him slowly, with no concern for headlines or tabloid shit-shows. They were careful with the salary cap, never traded away draft picks, and were happy to pick an international player who might not help them for a few years. They were … prudent. The next tier of teams is working on the same model, and while the ’07–’08 Boston Celtics (led by much younger versions of Pierce and Garnett) are the obvious outlier example, a team of superstars thrown together on the fly that managed to win a championship, theirs is the only real success story of that kind in the salary-cap era.


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