When two franchises share a city, their fates become inextricably linked. They serve as a looming point of comparison for one another, so constant as to become an annoyance and so familiar as to engender legitimate rivalry. It only helps to stoke the fire when both teams are on relatively equal footing, which is currently the case with the Knicks and Nets. Both are good enough to be obvious playoff teams without having quite the right pieces to elevate themselves to anything more, which put all the more pressure on both franchises to take the next step this offseason. What we’ve seen from both teams this summer — through trades and free agency alike — is an attempt to that end. But which New York team has had the better offseason to date?
Both New York teams have thus far used the offseason to affirm their previous intention to contend immediately, though to very different degrees of success. Of the two, Brooklyn’s gambit looks to be the far more favorable in terms of capitalizing on that win-now mantra.
Though the Nets haven’t served their own best interests in trading away so many future draft picks, the additions of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry should open up the offense (via better shooting and added versatility) while creating the potential for instant defensive improvement.
That’s more than we can say for the Knicks, who leveraged draft picks and a useful specialist in Steve Novak to acquire the rarely helpful Andrea Bargnani and the $21.3 million he’s owed over the next two seasons. Toronto has been intent on ditching Bargnani for months, and found a perfect trade partner in a New York team that seems to revel in collecting incompatible players. As if it weren’t difficult enough to manage the limitations of Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire in tandem, Bargnani’s woeful defense and slim rebounding stand to compound the Knicks’ rotational problems. New York at least protected against a harder fall next season by securing the return of J.R. Smith and Pablo Prigioni in free agency, though keeping pace from last season while picking up Bargnani doesn’t in any way measure up to the move Brooklyn made.
Both teams have flubbed in this dimension of their dealings thus far, though the Knicks less so than the Nets.
It made little sense to sacrifice two draft picks — a 2016 first-rounder and an undisclosed future second — in exchange for a much-maligned player that the Raptors seemed desperate to give away, but otherwise the Knicks are right where they were previously: locked into a huge amount of salary for the next several seasons, lacking the potential to add much through the draft (even before this deal came together, New York had traded away its first-rounder in 2014 and its second-rounders in 2014, 2015, and 2016 in other trades) and flawed enough to not be taken too seriously as contenders. They’re not in great long-term shape by any means, but much of that was already determined by the huge deals given to Anthony, Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler.
Brooklyn, on the other hand, took a bad long-term outlook and made it significantly worse. While Nets GM Billy King deserves a pat on the back for finding a taker for Gerald Wallace’s instantly regrettable contract (he’ll make $30.3 million over the next three seasons), he gave up a host of future picks in order to do so.
As a result of this deal (in conjunction with the Joe Johnson trade), Brooklyn doesn’t have complete ownership of any of its first-round picks for the next five years; three of those picks are now owed outright to the Celtics, while other teams (Atlanta and Boston, respectively) also have the right to swap first-round selections with Brooklyn in the intermittent years should the Nets fall into a more favorable draft slot. It’s one thing for a playoff team to give up a draft pick a year or two down the line for the sake of making more immediate gains, but the picks in 2017 and 2018 (on top of the 2014 and 2016 first-round selections) could be a huge price to pay for a 37-year-old big man who could well retire in a year and a 35-year-old wing who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.
Maximization of resources
Both teams entered this summer with limited options. The Knicks and Nets alike will land hefty tax bills this year, and were facing the possibility of losing their own free agents due to a complete lack of cap space and the compromise of settling for the smaller “taxpayer” mid-level exception. Still, Brooklyn managed to convince Andray Blatche to re-sign on a one-year, $1.4 million deal despite interest from other teams, while New York agreed to terms with J.R. Smith and Pablo Prigioni on multi-year contracts.
For teams with no cap room and few exceptions to add talent, the ability to retain becomes crucial. Were Blatche to leave, the Nets would be pained by Garnett’s playing-time limitations and likely screwed if any of their bigs went down with an injury. Were Smith and Prigioni to depart, the Knicks would miss out on crucial shot creation and ball movement.
All three of these additions are important, though if I’m picking between them I’ll favor the Knicks — largely because their peripheral moves this offseason could better serve them down the line. As great as it is for Brooklyn to get Blatche back at a fantastic price, he’ll likely only stick with the Nets for a season more before he looks for a bigger payday. New York, on the other hand, will have Prigioni to run its second-unit offense and Smith as either a spot scorer or trade chip for the next several seasons, all while the team remains capped out. The Nets will go through this same scramble to find bargain talent a year from now, while the Knicks can do what they will with these two assets over the next few seasons.
Neither of these teams makes for a particularly promising contender this season, nor do they have much hope further down the line. Still, if we look solely at what has transpired this summer, I’d give the slightest of advantages to the Nets. The Knicks won two of the three categories above, but given the win-now framework that defines the operations of both teams, I’d say that the Nets have made the more successful offseason improvements. They gave away most every draft pick they could in the process and didn’t create any other future assets, but they at least made some positive movement on both ends of the floor while executing their short-sighted plan. They’ll be the better of the two New York teams this season, their future be damned.