There had never been buildup to a franchise's relocation in NBA history like the New Jersey Nets’ decade-long slow drift to New Jersey. When Russian billionaire Mikhael Prokhorov brought the franchise, he believed he could convert Knicks fans into Nets fans – starting in his own borough.
The New York Knicks have run a monopoly on pro hoops fandom across the five boroughs and the Tri-State area for decades. By rebooting in Brooklyn, the Nets hit reset on their tragic history, and are in year one of hoops’ version of the Mac vs. PC battle.
Nationally, the Knicks are perceived as a historical relic. But they’re somewhat washed up. It’s been 40 years since they last won a title. In 2011, Prokhorov promised a ring in five.
The Nets brought in Jay-Z and gave him carte blanche to inject the organization with some black swag and help make Barclays Center a sleek visage. Madison Square Garden is all-inclusive, but Jay-Z stamped hip-hop culture all over the Nets.
If the nation’s second-largest media market in Los Angeles could support two franchises, surely, the nation’s largest could do the same, right? Brooklyn is seen as an extension of New York City, but on its own, the city’s 2.5 million residents rank it as the fourth-highest populace in the United States.
When asked whether Brooklyn and New York were already a rivalry, last May, Commissioner David Stern kept it real.
“Why not?” he said. “You know what’s interesting? It’s Brooklyn, New York, but I consider it Brooklyn, USA. If it were just Brooklyn, it would be like I think the fifth-largest market in our league…and the Brooklyn Diaspora is incredible, at all levels of corporate society and life, and there are lots of people, not just (former Seattle SuperSonics owner, current Starbucks CEO and Brooklyn native) Howard Schultz, who are looking forward to going back to a game in their home borough, so to speak.”
Brooklyn sports fanatics have had an inferiority complex towards their Manhattan counterparts since the Dodgers left.
“The curse of O’Malley is over,” former owner Bruce Ratner told USA Today after Barclays’ opening. “People lived with the curse. And now we can finally rest and move on as the renaissance of Brooklyn continues.”
After Red Hook native Carmelo Anthony gave Brooklyn a fake number and snuck into a Knicks uniform, the Brooklyn Napoleonites seethed, dug in and quickly traded for Plan B, Deron Williams.
We were told Brooklynites had been thirsting for a team since the Dodgers packed up and dipped for L.A.’s beaches and tropical weather 56 years ago.
The roster was geared to revolve around Williams, while he steered a Maybach offense through Eastern Conference streets. The intent was for the Nets to pair Dwight Howard with Williams and market them as the East Coast’s Lob City.
Unfortunately, the offense runs like a hooptie, and the Nets have been blasé. Meanwhile, across the Hudson, the Knicks look revitalized and have bumped the Nets out of focus.
The national intrigue has been replaced by shrugs and crickets. Their probable first round series against the Chicago Bulls is going to be one of the most stagnant series in the postseason. Besides, Brooklyn still bleeds blue and orange, and it’ll take more than one season to wean Brooklyn off of the Knicks teat.
Prokhorov is the owner, but he’s a billionaire who spends much of his time in Europe. Jay-Z is the unofficial spokesman, but he is reportedly selling his half-percent ownership stake so he can dip out and get his Jerry Maguire on. The Nets also face a quandary on the other end of the Clippers spectrum. While Lob City is too finesse for a deep playoff run, the Nets are too pedestrian.
Jay swagged out Barclays Center and instantly made black and white cool. However, aside from a few Joe Johnson buzzer-beaters, the roster is aging, the upside is limited and they play a sluggish brand of basketball.
The Nets are pretty from afar, but when you look closer into their cigar box of an arena, you realize they play far from pretty. Instead, they’ve been scuffing up the pristine Barclay floors with their slow motion offense, averaging both the second-fewest possessions and fast break points per game.
The Nets lost one after Christmas when head coach Avery Johnson was fired after a losing streak dropped them to 14-14.
Since then, the Nets have quietly won 32 of their last 50 games under P.J. Carlesimo as Deron Williams’ health and numbers have improved.
Somewhere during the trek from Newark to Brooklyn, Williams dropped his shooting stroke. When Johnson was fired, Williams’ shooting percentage was sub-.400 from the field and 29 percent from downtown.
However, considering the early season hype surrounding the Nets, Williams’ resurgence has inexplicably occurred in a media vacuum. Since the All-Star break, Williams is averaging 22.5 points a game while shooting 48 percent from the field and 42.8 percent from three.
This month, Williams is averaging 29 points and eight assists, but sports talk in New York is consumed with Anthony’s scoring title. Williams’ bounce is even back. Prior to his first dunk of the season on April 4, it appeared Williams needed a pair of shoulders to climb onto to get some rim action.
Power forward Reggie Evans’ emergence symbolizes the Brooklyn Nets in a nutshell. Evans loves to roll in the mud down in the post and collect garbage off the rim, but somehow he’s become a starter on his sixth team in 10 seasons. Alongside preppy big men Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, Evans hits the boards, averaging 11 per game and leads the league in 20-rebound games. However, he counters his waste-collecting with an offensive skill set that should be dumped in a landfill. Evans averages just 4.6 points a game.
He also understands the challenges of playing in the shadow of a city rival. Evans spent last season boxing out the Laker fan base in Staples, while the Clippers carved out their own niche for the first time in three decades.
Evans isn’t having it, because the Knicks don’t live up to the Lakers standards.
“It’s a different ball game when you’re talking about the comparison. You can’t really compare the Knicks to the Lakers, because the Lakers have how many rings? Compared to two [for the Knicks]? There’s no resemblance.” Evans told the New York Post.
The Knicks’ quest for their first title since 1973 has now evolved into a track meet with the Nets, but Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez can’t be supplemental stars if the Nets hope to win the arms race.
Dwight Howard is a pipe dream. Once the new luxury tax shifts into high gear this summer, the Nets are going to have to use front-office savvy, in addition to Prokhorov’s deep pockets and the allure of Brooklyn’s cultural cache, to escape their stagnant funk. Unfortunately, expectations are low for GM Billy King, who struggled putting a foundation around Allen Iverson in Philadelphia.
We live in a “what have you done for me, lately” society, and the Nets have nestled into the middle of the pack. But if they don’t make some playoff noise as the fourth seed, they’ll get lost in the concrete jungle.