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The Race for Fourth Place

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The Knicks, needless to say, have been the furthest thing from prudent. And it’s worth pausing for a moment to point out how insane the Knicks’ worldview in this regard is. Most franchises are afraid to go through austerity periods like the Knicks endured under general manager and president Donnie Walsh from 2008 to 2011, because fans don’t like to pay to watch losing teams—punting a couple of seasons to clean up your salary cap and collect draft picks might be smart strategy, but it can be murder to the bottom line. But the Knicks are the incredibly rare franchise that has never had to worry about this: They sell out the Garden even when the team stinks! Given that luxury, it’s flabbergasting, really, that the team never allows a conscientious rebuilding plan to reach fruition. And this is the ongoing Knicks tragedy: They’re not a franchise that has to win every year … but they act like one.

Take the era when Walsh was in charge. Charged with cleaning up the Dumpster fire Isiah Thomas had left him, Walsh stripped the team clean, hoarding draft picks and clearing up the gnarled cap situation, letting the Knicks flounder as the process took shape. By 2010, that plan was starting to bear fruit: The Knicks were in a position to keep all their talent in-house and sign a big free agent in the 2011 off-season, probably Denver’s Carmelo Anthony, who wanted to be a Knick. But Jim Dolan and Knicks brass got antsy and, looking to make a big splash mid-season, traded away much of that talent, along with future draft picks, for Anthony, who then signed the contract extension everyone knew he was going to all along.

Carmelo has been terrific for the Knicks, but he hasn’t been LeBron, and thus he hasn’t been enough. And in order to complement him, the Knicks have gone back to the building-the-airplane-while-it’s-in-the-air chaos of the Isiah days, hitting the low point with the trade for Bargnani, in which they gave up a future first-round pick they didn’t have for a player they don’t have a position for. Oh, and they also threw in two second-round picks.

The Nets could have learned from the Knicks’ failures and excesses. Instead, Brooklyn has doubled down on them. From the beginning, it was obvious that the Nets organization believed that supplanting the Knicks (and not building a competitive on-court product) was their highest priority. It was as if they’d seen the tabloids thrash the Knicks every day for a decade (while ignoring the New Jersey version of the Nets) and, instead of taking the right lesson (“Let’s not run our franchise that way”), they learned exactly the wrong one: “Oh, that’s how to get attention!”

Not every decision the Nets have made has been disastrous—the signing of Deron Williams made sense, as did the resigning of an underrated Brook Lopez. But almost nothing else has worked. The trade for Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace before last season was a disaster; Wallace gave the Nets almost nothing, and this season he’s gone. Johnson is now paid the league’s fifth-highest salary ($21.4 million! More than LeBron!) to be the second-best shooting guard on his own team. And their trade this off-season for Pierce and Garnett—two aging stars too old to win much for the last team they played for—is tragic confirmation that the Nets are on the same suicide track as the Knicks. They’ve now mortgaged even more of the future than the Knicks have. With the trade, the Nets not only have no space or money to add players, they now own only one draft pick—a piddly second-rounder—until 2018. That is so self-­destructive that NBA rules actually ban it: You’re not allowed to trade first-round draft picks in consecutive years, something the Nets of course found a way around. The team the Nets have right now? The one full of guys in their thirties? That’s it. For the next five years. And they’re paying insanely for it: Counting the tax payment for going over the salary cap, Prokhorov & Co. will spend north of $180 million in salary and luxury tax on this year’s team—a team that brought in, according to Forbes’s most recent annual estimation, only $84 million in revenue.

Do the Nets have a better chance of winning a title than they did last year? I suppose, though the rest of the Eastern Conference is better, too, particularly with the return of Chicago’s Derrick Rose from injury (although the Atlantic Division is actually worse, which means the Knicks and Nets could put up gaudy records without playing great basketball). But if the Nets don’t win this year—and despite those possible improvements, they’re extremely unlikely to—the team is just going to get older and worse and more expensive. In order to stave off a reckoning, they’ll have to make more Hail Mary moves like they have in the past two seasons, just like the Knicks have always done. This is two franchises nuking each other while Miami, safely away from the fallout, laughs.

This year should be the best year yet for the Nets-Knicks rivalry. Enjoy it. Because both teams are about to get a ton worse.

You can write to Leitch at will.leitch@nymag.com.


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