After all, the Knicks have been the premier team in New York, not the Nets, and the Knicks play at Madison Square Garden, the premier arena in basketball. Why would any top free agent settle for the little-brother franchise in the biggest city in basketball? It just didn’t make sense.
But here we are in the summer of 2019, and New York’s two teams are on the verge of trading places. The Knicks intentionally created enough cap space to fit two max free agents in this year’s loaded free agency class, but it’s the Nets who ended up landing both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
Had the Knicks struck out on the top free agents this summer — top meaning Irving, Durant, and/or Kawhi Leonard — team president Steve Mills preached patience, much like Brooklyn did in the years leading up to last season’s playoff appearance. He’ll have to put those words into action now.
“I think we’re asking them (the fans) to continue to be patient. We laid out a plan when Scott (Perry) came on board and then David (Fizdale) joined us, that we were gonna build this team the right way,” Mills said. “We’re going to draft well and we’re gonna be diligent about how we make this team and not take any shortcuts. And follow a path. We believe these two guys are part of that process.”
There’s always uncertainty about any team’s plan in the days leading up to the start of free agency, but SNY’s Ian Begley reported the Knicks didn’t plan to commit long-term money to a player that isn’t one of the top free agents. “If they miss out on their top targets, the Knicks are more likely to pursue short-term contracts to maintain cap flexibility,” he wrote on June 21.
Depending on where the dominos fall, we just watched the Knicks become the Nets and the Nets become the Knicks over the course of one offseason.
One the one hand, this is a testament to the culture Brooklyn has built over the years. No matter where you stand on the Knicks-Nets rivalry, you have to tip your hat to Brooklyn general manager Sean Marks and head coach Kenny Atkinson. They have created an environment that fosters player development. D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, and Caris LeVert have each improved significantly in Brooklyn’s system. That much is undeniable.
In a way, this is what the Knicks should have done all along. They mortgaged their future years ago in the Carmelo Anthony trade, only to top out as a team that never made it past the second round of the playoffs. Champions are built largely by drafting well, and developing talent. New York has a chance to do just that, and fans should be excited at the possibility.
While the jury is still out on general manager Scott Perry’s draft picks, his track record is promising. Last year, the Knicks selected Kevin Knox ninth, got a steal at No. 36 in Mitchell Robinson, and found a quality undrafted free agent in Allonzo Trier. This summer, the Knicks took R.J. Barrett third overall.
Perry also helped facilitate the Kristaps Porzingis trade to Dallas, after the injured and embattled forward told the front office he preferred not to be in New York last season. The Knicks were able to recoup Dennis Smith Jr., DeAndre Jordan, and Wesley Matthews as part of that deal, as well as Dallas’ 2021 and 2023 first-round picks.
Brooklyn, on the other hand, didn’t have the luxury of any high first-round draft picks after Billy King gave Boston all of Brooklyn’s assets for an aging Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The Marks-Atkinson Nets, however, turned lemons into lemonade. They took it on the chin and ate years of losing, both on the court and in the eye of public perception.
But those who paid close attention realized Brooklyn was building for this very moment: to create an environment that could attract bigger-name players.
They traded for Russell and turned him into a Most Improved Player candidate and all-star (replacement for Victor Oladipo). They developed LeVert into a potential young star, and made Dinwiddie a Sixth Man of the Year snub. The Nets became a factory for self-proclaimed incremental progress. Now, they’re fast tracking into championship contention after landing Durant and Irving.
The stars have aligned to get the Knicks and Nets in a position where they could trade places. Brooklyn is forming a super team after adding Irving and Durant to a roster that snapped a three-year playoff drought. They did so by slowly developing their talent and creating a winning culture. This summer is the payoff for all that work.
Now that New York has struck out on the cream of the crop of free agents, they will have the opportunity to start the opening stages of their own process. So long as they stick to their guns and remain patient, choosing to develop their players over sinking long-term money into second-tier free agents to win now, they’ll be better in the long run.