It is an interesting time to be a basketball fan in the Big Apple. New York City is about to enter a new whole era of NBA basketball.
This past week was “tip off week” in the NBA as both the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets opened their seasons with two young stars meant to carry the city’s basketball legacy. Kristaps Porzingis and D’Angelo Russell both showcased that they are ready to take up the mantle for both the Knicks and Nets prospectively as each of them had excellent debut games. Porzingis had 31 points and 11 rebounds while Russell had a career high 30 points and five assists, the best debut for a new Net in more than 40 years.
Although these are excellent showcases, they are still nothing more than mere stepping stones for what is essentially a long, rebuilding process. Both teams are nowhere near ready to compete against the upper echelon of Eastern Conference talent like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, or even the Washington Wizards. The rosters are still growing and more than likely will go through some changes as factors such as the NBA Draft, trades, and free agency will come into play. Decisions will need to be made as to what players fit with each other and the culture both teams are trying to create. It remains to be seen what is going to happen from here on out.
An Age of Wisdom and An Age of Foolishness
The Phil Jackson Era was arguably one of the worst periods in Knicks basketball history but there were some benefits to the Zen Master’s time in the organization. He picked up some interesting prospects going forward to benefit the team’s future. The idea of Frank Ntilikina, Kristaps Porzingis, Willy Hernangomez, and Dameyon Dotson playing together is a great one. With the (re)addition of Tim Hardaway Jr. the Knicks have a solid foundation to build off of going forward. Plus, they (FINALLY) own all of their first round picks for the foreseeable future. The organization is in the best position in years and it is smart for them to embrace a rebuilding plan.
The Knicks new general manager Scott Perry seems to be taking the task of rebuilding the team very seriously. Unlike his predecessor who was ill-prepared and somewhat lackadaisical, Perry has closely been monitoring the team, taking on a more “hands-on” approach to ensure the rebuilding process goes smoothly. He was even seen at the season opener in Oklahoma City watching the team.
It’s Year One for the team and it’s usually a transition year for rebuilding teams. Moving on from a previous regime is not an overnight process. It may be a good, few years before Perry can complete the roster and make it competitive. For starters, he had to deal Carmelo Anthony since the former Knick was unhappy with the organization and wanted out of NY. While ideally Perry wanted to be patient, there’s no denying that keeping Melo on the roster would only lead to more distractions so it had to be done. However, Perry did not exactly get the kind of Fort Knox haul most fans would be expecting.
While Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott are from bad players, they’re not exactly the key pieces that fit the current roster and the past few games show. Defensively, the team is a shiv when both players on the floor. Kanter was always known as a great post scorer and solid rebounder but a very poor defensive player. McDermott was always a spot up shooter and not much else. The team’s biggest need is defensive players and the Melo trade gave them the exact opposite.
Worst is that key young players that are in need of playing time to gain experience and develop a chemistry are not getting the minutes due to questionable coaching rotations and a glut in the center position. Willy Hernangomez is getting the worst of it and has admitted frustrations to not being able to play alongside his teammates.
“I’m still mad,” Hernangomez said to Fred Kerber of the NY Post. “I cannot help the team win if I’m sitting on the bench. Two games in a row. It’s tough. I have to wait my moment. I cannot say nothing more.”
Jeff Hornaceck, the current head coach who was able to keep his job after Phil Jackson’s firing, stated that Hernangomez needs to improve his defense if he intends on getting playing time. He also stated that the addition of Kanter and Kyle O’Quinn’s aggressiveness on the boards make it difficult to find minutes for his young center.
This is understandable. Young players shouldn’t automatically think they’re safe just because they are thought of in the team’s future. Playing time has to be earned and Hernangomez needs to improve his game if he intends on seeing the floor. However, this is a “Catch-22.” The only way Hernangomez — along with other young Knicks players like Dotson and even Lance Thomas — are going to get better is with playing time. Neutering them on the bench is not going to help them in the long run. They have to develop chemistry with each other if they want to be competitive in the NBA. It’s no secret that players like Kanter, McDermott, O’Quin, Michael Beasley, and even Courtney Lee are not going to be on the roster in the future. Hornaceck is going to have to find a way to get his young guys to play together otherwise this rebuilding process is pointless.
It’s possible that the veterans are playing more minutes due to the fact that they will be traded later on in the season and are just showcasing their skills for other NBA teams. Regardless of the reason, Knicks fans have to remember that this is a transition year and they’re going to be a few bumps ahead for the organization. There are still key pieces needed (particularly in the small forward and point guard positions). It’ll take time but if the Knicks practice patience, then the team has a real chance of becoming a powerhouse in the future.
A Brilliant City Rising From the Abyss
Before the arrival of current Nets GM Sean Marks, the team was in a dire situation. They were capped out, had no draft picks, and no plan. Billy King, Marks predecessor, was removed from his position and the organization needed to take action in order to put themselves in solid, winning position moving forward. Marks had an excellent reputation due to his experiences with a winning sports culture in the San Antonio Spurs. He was an assistant coach for Gregg Popovich — and was present when the team won their fifth championship ring in 2014 — and worked as a basketball operations assistant and eventually was an assistant general manager. He was also a scout and had an eye for finding talent. This made him the perfect candidate to save the Nets from imploding.
Marks made several shrewd trades and bought second round picks that resulted in players like Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead. He also scouted the G-League and picked up NBA ready prospects like Spencer Dinwiddie, Sean Kilpatrick, and Joe Harris. He signed Jeremy Lin due to his maturity, strong point guard play, and his close relationship with current Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson, who was Lin’s development coach during the “Linsanity Era” with the Knicks.
However, the crown jewel that will define Sean Marks time with the Nets is the trade of longtime Net Brook Lopez for the number two pick of the 2015 NBA Draft, D’Angelo Russell.
Russell has been looking for a chance to prove to his doubters that he’s a player that belongs in the NBA and has the ability to lead a team. Unfortunately, his time with the Los Angeles Lakers was “controversial” to say the least. He spent his rookie year with a legendary player who was on his way out to the greener pastures of “Sports Valhalla” (retirement). The Lakers “win-now” philosophy did not allow Russell to take the time to learn the ins and outs of the NBA. And let’s not even mention the “Snapchat fiasco” with Nick Young, resulting with him alienating his teammates for a while. It was clear that his time with the Lakers would be troubling. New Lakers GM (and sports legend) Magic Johnson saw it fit to trade Russell for Brook Lopez, questioning the young point guard’s ability to lead a team and his lack of maturity. This would only add more fuel to Russell’s fire in his need to prove the naysayers wrong that he can become an elite point guard in the NBA.
Unlike the Lakers, who seemed to be making a push to the playoffs (and failing) every year, the Nets made it clear that they are currently rebuilding the team with D’Angelo Russell as one of the cornerstone pieces for the franchise. Since Atkinson has a history of developing young guards like Jeremy Lin, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Dennis Schroder during his time as an assistant coach with the Atlanta Hawks, he can help improve Russell’s game and turn him into one of the best young point guards in the league. So far, Atkinson’s relationship with Russell seems to be improving with each game.
Russell had breakout games recently against both the Orlando Magic and the Atlanta Hawks. While those two teams aren’t exactly major powerhouses, the victories do showcase that Russell is embracing his new role as the team’s lead guard and is developing a chemistry with his newfound teammates, especially his shooting guard running mate Caris LeVert. With Lin’s recent injury that has ruled him out of the season, it’s up to Russell to take command of the team and continue to grow as a NBA player. Marks and Atkinson have made sure that there’s a young team in place in order for them to grow.
Don’t get it twisted. The Nets are no where near ready to compete. They are still extremely young and extremely inexperienced. Plus, they are still in need of players with size in the power forward and center positions for defense in guarding the paint and grabbing rebounds. Speaking of defense, the Nets have allowed over 100 points against opposing teams during the past three games. Although they were able to win two out of the three, it is vital that they improve defensively if they are to truly compete going forward. They are a fun team to watch but, much like the Knicks, patience is needed in order for them to evolve as a team.
Dark times are finally wearing out
It’s a long time coming but New York basketball seems to be on the right path to being fun again. Both teams still have room to improve but it seems that the ones in charge have a good idea as to where they want to go as an organization. It is vital for them to maintain patience and continue to update the roster with talent and not compromise the process with quick fix schemes that have plagued them in the past (especially the Knicks). It’s okay New York sports fans. You have every right to be excited about basketball in the city again.