Seven years ago, the Nets left New Jersey for Brooklyn, hoping to mint money and a new identity in New York City. From the very start, the Nets set themselves up as a foil to the Knicks, the city’s begrudgingly beloved first franchise. With brash Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov bankrolling the team and Jay-Z as the superstar celebrity ambassador (and minority partner), the Nets sought to make a splash quickly.
That splash started by trading for all-star point guard Deron Williams before the move to Brooklyn. This would be the Nets’ first star since Jason Kidd, and came days after the Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony in a blockbuster deal. A year later, in an effort to ensure Williams would re-sign with a disappointing Nets team, New Jersey traded an unprotected first for Gerald Wallace.
The pick became Damian Lillard, the first sign the Nets were taking on water.
Williams and Wallace never made it work, and badly desperate/desperately bad trades for Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce blew up in spectacular fashion. When all of them moved on, the Nets — ensconced in Brooklyn but still as mediocre as they were in New Jersey — had to rebuild without most of their own draft picks or cap space.
The Knicks have been one of the worst teams in the NBA since the Nets moved to town in 2012, and the Knicks still own New York completely.
On Sunday, the Brooklyn Nets caught two of the biggest whales to ever appear in New York Harbor: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Knicks, meanwhile ... well, let’s not talk about the Knicks, who boasted in midseason about having knowledge that this summer would go very well (it’s not) amid trading Kristaps Porzingis for salary cap space and picks.
For the last couple of years, the Nets have focused on building a winning team culture and a gritty, smart on-court identity. This was by necessity: the string of mistakes from D-Will to K.G. left no other option. But it has clearly worked.
General manager Sean Marks targeted players with upside, humility, and work ethic. Coach Kenny Atkinson and his staff have focused on building smart habits and boosting individuals’ roles. D’Angelo Russell — who many (including the LA Lakers) wrote off two years ago — became an all-star in the system. Now, several teams, including the Lakers. are trying to throw money at Russell, who the Nets can’t keep after landing Irving. Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, and Jared Allen are building very promising careers. (LeVert figures enormously in the Irving-Durant future.)
The Knicks ... well, the Knicks chased a star for the front office, Phil Jackson. That was a nightmare. They chased a would-be star for the sidelines, Derek Fisher. Nightmare. They taunted Carmelo Anthony into fleeing the city he loved, and got sideways with Porzingis before trading him. Now ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne reports the Knicks didn’t even offer Durant the max, since he’ll spend next season recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon. For only the Knicks would this be a believable report.
In 2012-13, the Nets’ first in Brooklyn, the Nets won 49 games and the Knicks won 54. Both teams went into a free fall spanning most of the decade. The Nets just stood up. The Knicks are staying down for now. The Nets have taken New York. It feels like it took a long time, but really, seven years is nothing for a seismic shift like this.
The Nets might be 40 games better than Knicks this season, but will likely need to wait one more year for Durant’s return to truly take the NBA by storm. For Brooklyn, it will certainly have been worth the wait.