A Tale of Two Cities

Spencer Dinwiddie has grease stains on the ‘K’ of his keyboard. Kyrie Irving. Kevin Durant. Knicks. It’s partially faded. It only works 95% of the time from repeated use. The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets play in arenas only a fifteen minute train ride away from one another. Long heralded as the premiere destination for basketball, culture, and falling short on promises, the Knicks have moved into uncharted territory as a franchise. Losing out on the bigger name free agents available after a season that saw  ‘K’risptaps Porzingis traded away, and their second seventeen win season since being coached by Derek Fisher in 2015. The Knicks have a way of getting you emotionally invested in a pipedream only to have the carpet get pulled out from under you. After fans were convinced that Zion was coming to New York with a trade for AD to come soon after, the very franchise we would be doing that trade with landed Zion themselves. We Knick fans shifted our hopes all on the shoulders of Kevin Durant’s ruptured Achilles and Kyrie’s surgically scotch taped knees, and still we were excited. The killing blow came from none other than Brooklyn’s back-up point guard. With prophetic tweets roasting the Knicks starting last season, leading up to his victory lap a week ago, Dinwiddie did it recruiting the same players the Knicks hoped would steer their ship forward. The bottomless spiral of the Knicks is now directly compared to the rapid ascension of the Nets. The basketball world and the organizations themselves are aware of the jarring differences in the two teams sharing our city. How far does the disappointment of Knicks fan permeate? Does this signify the death of a franchise in another’s birth? Will fairweather fans from Long Island and New Jersey actually take the train into Penn Station and grab a slice at Roses DIRECTLY below the Garden only to then hop on the 2 train down to the Barclays Center?

 Last season the Brooklyn Nets reached the playoffs matching up against the 76ers in the first round. The 76ers after handing the reins to Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons led the NBA in attendance last year with 20,441 fans on average. The Nets came in dead last with 14,941 fans per game. Meanwhile the team with the worst record in the NBA, the New York Knicks pulled in 19,002 fans per game to watch them win a total nine of forty-one games at home. The success of the Nets and the failure of the Knicks is highlighted in the box score and standings, but as far as respect goes the Nets remain the little brother. With tickets to a Knicks game costing an average $50 more than a Nets ticket, the split between dead last in attendance and top 10 highlighting even more disparity in revenue. However, Durant’s former Warriors and Kyrie’s former Celtics were 7th and 11th in attendance respectively. Being the superstars of their team, the Nets should see their attendance leap out of the gutter and compete for a top spot with other teams in contention. New shiny toys to electrify the Barclays center, should not only put them in pole position for the better on court record but in securing fans as well (queue a Dinwiddie laugh whenever you’d like). TV ratings for the Knicks also fell last season by thirty eight percent only beating out the now LeBron-less Cavaliers, while the Nets TV viewership increased twenty two percent. The tide of the NBA is as torrential as it’s ever been, and that’s being reflected in fan engagement and loyalty.

 All that being said sales and viewership only account for what team owners care about. Clearly the Nets players were happy with their season, having gone back in the playoffs for a fourth time since moving to Brooklyn, while the Knicks have made just one appearance in the postseason in the same time. Besides, the Nets have a bigger blow to deal than winning on the court or in ticket sales. They made the Knicks know what it’s like to have your head hit the pavement. Not just taking hope away, but doing it with the biggest middle finger imaginable to an already crippled franchise. Their on court success and potential popularity already bubbling for years to come, the Nets have killed hope for their hometown rivals and turned a fanbase built on hope for the future through promises in the front office into a dormant one. Their front office connections were yet another advantage the Nets possess, as Ali Baba and Roc Nation proved to be far more interesting than free tickets to JD and the Straight Shot. The spurn of Kyrie and Durant only reinforces that the delusion Knicks fans have of their organization to be exactly that. 

 Meanwhile, on the West Coast in a similar timeline, the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers literally share an arena. The Staples Center is home to the league’s most revered team 16-time champion Lakers, and to their counterparts the league afterthought Clippers. However, the Clippers have similarly been able to pull the rug out from under their older brother this summer, signing the same players the Lakers were going after in Kawhi Leonard, and plucking Paul George to assist. The Clippers were able to quickly pivot out of the Lob City era and in two years created a future for themselves that looks brighter than anything in their past. Meanwhile The Lakers possess organizational ineptitude so outlandish that it seems to be playing out on First Take every morning in real time. It is pretty easy to draw a comparison between the big brother Lakers and their Manhattan counterpart, where The Clippers and Nets fit the Luigi role. The Lakers however have at least two things to fall back on that keeps their fans from falling into the same agony as Knicks fans. They have the second most championships in the league at sixteen AND are bound to compete for another one as long as they have Anthony Davis (and LeBron for the next 2 years). The Knicks on the other hand won two championships so long ago no one is entirely sure it actually happened with the only evidence being grainy footage on MSG Network at 5am and fabled stories from Clyde Frazier at Knicks games about the “glory days”. 

 And the laughable moves that led them to their misery is Cheddar-Bob-Plaxico-Burress-esque. Since making their last appearance in the playoffs in 2013, the Knicks have hired Derek Fisher (.294 win percentage), hired Jeff Hornacek (.366 win percentage), Traded a 1st round pick for Andrea Bargnani. Moved Tyson Chandler for Samuel Dalembert and Jose Calderon. Drafted Cleanthony Early (ended his career early). Drafted Kristaps Porzingis (bright spot), Flipped Jerian Grant, Robin Lopez, Jose Calderon for Derrick Rose and Justin Holiday. Signed players like Courtney Lee, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Joakim Noah to expensive long term deals. Traded Carmelo Anthony for Enes Kanter, Doug McBuckets, and a 2nd rounder. And dealt, Kristaps Porzingis (low spot) for DSJ, cap space, and picks. Effectively trading away their only All-Stars (KP, Tyson, and Melo) for scraps in efforts to undo their mistakes. Did I mention Andrea Bargnani? At the same time, the Nets centered their transactions around acquiring large contracts and picks, using their cap space to produce teams that would compete while sneaking players like D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, and Spencer Dinwiddie himself in deals and getting late round picks like Caris LaVert, Jarrett Allen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Rodionis Kurcus to make up their playoff core in a quick turn around. Moves that took advantage of their cap, and gave them youth with smaller contracts to replace their aging players. 

Lob City won in Staples Center for years, but in one season the Clippers managed to replace their aging players with youth by way of smart signings and trades landing them back in the playoffs just one season removed. And as the Lakers attempted to climb out of mediocrity, Jeanie Buss and staff have made questionable moves as well (see: trading D’Angelo Russell, signing Loul Deng, Timofey Mozgov, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) but have drafted key players in like Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Larry Nance Jr. and Josh Hart. Some of which they were able to move for AD in their retooling after luring LeBron away from his hometown in efforts to make one more run in LA.

Whether or not the Knicks lose their attendance and viewership position (and in turn: the city) to the Nets, the more pressing issue is they are stuck. Stuck making moves that now seem too little too late, as the Nets will be a stronghold in contention over the Knicks going into a new decade. It’s far less important that merchandise, sales, and coverage will be delegated in favor of the Nets more than ever before. Slowly, but with the snap of a finger, the Nets have positioned themselves as New York’s team. They’re in control of their own promising destiny and have planted a demolition explosive on the aura of perceived future success for NYK. They haven’t just toppled the Knicks’ summer plans but blown a hole in how fans of the NBA feel, NY natives feel, and NBA players and executives perceive the dynamic in NYC. As the Knicks try to turn to investing in their future, bringing in young players in positions of need on short term contracts allows them flexibility to mold. A strategy unexplored in lieu of their swinging for the fences in player signings and coming up short. The shadow cast from Brooklyn is dark and growing, but may give the Knicks a chance away from the spotlight as they try to do what the Nets had the luxury of doing, in putting a team together over time. The Zion Williamson, Anthony Davis, Kyrie and Kevin Durant photoshops in blue and orange are now archival meme/cursed images. But the reality, although less monstar-ish, is one with a real future. Not one built on future hope and promise but progress and identity. If you swing for a home run and miss every time, maybe you should just try getting on base. The Knicks are on first (finally), but the Nets are trotting the bases with glee even more so, knowing they have shed all little brother impressions. Anything you can’t do, we can do…much better.

Both LA teams are far closer in relevance than their NYC counterparts but it’s also undisputedly true that the tables have been turned on both big brothers. The Knicks hobbling back to their corner for the 20th time and the Lakers tasting their own blood by way of Jerry West. Should the Clippers or Nets win the championship before the Lakers or Knicks, the ramifications will transform the NBA as we know it going forward. The shock felt by both fan bases as they watch their teams lose out to the league’s most unlikely heroes will continue to be felt every playoff victory they watch from afar. Every loss they take head-to-head, and should they watch a Nets-Clippers Finals, only confirm success that could’ve been. Kawhi’s laugh bellows through the corridors in Staples Center for at least the next three years, and the chuckles and trolls of Spencer Dinwiddie will continue to light up @nyknicks fans timelines. Welcome to the new look NBA.

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