Both N.B.A. teams in New York City are in transition right now — on and off the floor.
For the Nets, this year’s campaign is about cultivating camaraderie and developing the younger players, treading water until the wounded knight in shining armor — Kevin Durant — returns next season. For the Knicks, this season’s motto is most likely some variation of: “There’s always next year. And the year after that.”
In the meantime, the tenants of Madison Square Garden have been unwatchable. The Knicks are in perpetual bridge mode — but what they’re transitioning to is unclear. The coaches don’t seem to know, which shows in their substitution patterns. The front office has no idea, which shows in the roster construction. It’s in a constant state of flux, and the on-court results are terrible: The Knicks went 1-7 to start the season. They have been outscored by more points on average than any other team in the league.
But there is light on the other side of the Williamsburg Bridge. The Nets were a mediocre 3-4 in their first seven games, but two of those losses were by 1 point in overtime. Very much unlike the Knicks, the Nets have a positive point differential, which suggests that some of their close losses are going to turn into wins as the season progresses. They have the fifth best offense in the league and second best in the East, behind the Milwaukee Bucks. Kyrie Irving, 27, is playing not just the best basketball of his career, but some of the best basketball in the league. He’s on pace for career highs in essentially everything.
The Nets have struggled defensively, performing below the league average. This has resulted in their being unable to hold leads: They have blown significant second-half advantages against the Pistons, the Knicks, the Timberwolves and the Grizzlies. They should still make the playoffs, but the question is whether they’ll be better than last year. If they’re not, that’s disappointing for the franchise. But they’ll always be able to fall back on “Who cares? Durant is coming back.”
Here is a Billy Joel-themed — get it? New York? — look at what has caught my eye in New York.
R.J. Barrett has been exceptional for the Knicks and a team bright spot. His jumper was a concern as he entered the league, and so far the rookie guard is shooting 36.7 percent from deep. He’s excellent defensively and has a nose for being exactly where he needs to be. He’s a bulldog in the paint, often outmuscling forwards for rebounds (averaging a solid 6.1). He’s not tentative down the stretch.
His early workload may be cause for worry, considering that Coach David Fizdale is playing him 36.8 minutes a game. But Barrett is 19. Does he need so-called load management right now? (On the other hand, no coach wants to lose. Fizdale needs to keep his best players out there so the team can be competitive. He’s probably not thinking five years down the line.)
Many in Nets circles had Caris LeVert pegged as a star from the start.
The Indiana Pacers drafted the guard late in the first round in 2016 before trading him to the Nets for Thaddeus Young. Over the summer, the Nets significantly increased their investment in LeVert, 25, with a three-year extension in the $50 million range.
The team is already seeing rewards: LeVert is on pace for career highs in scoring, rebounding and efficiency. His jump shot has been a weak point, but this season, he’s shooting 37.5 percent from deep, up from 31.2 percent last year, while launching 3-pointers at the highest rate in his career. He’s difficult to guard in the open floor. He probably won’t have the top-shelf stats to make the All-Star team this season, but if the Nets start getting more wins, he could be in the discussion.
Describe the Knicks any way you want. Disaster. Trainwreck. Inept. Whatever words you want to use.
I’ll just go with strange.
On paper, the Knicks look like a team that should have more wins. They’ve been competitive in most of their games. Julius Randle, their marquee free-agent acquisition, isn’t shooting well, averaging 14.3 points a game on 43.4 percent shooting. He’s hitting only 17.4 percent of his 3-point shots. But he is rebounding well and is dishing 4.3 assists a game, on pace for a career high. Marcus Morris is dropping a 17.9 points a game while hitting an exceptional 47.6 percent of his 3s. We’ve already talked about how well Barrett has played. Kevin Knox looks much more comfortable in his sophomore campaign — and is a much more accurate shooter, to the tune of 44.1 percent from 3-point range. Same for Mitchell Robinson, although he stills fouls too much.
Yet the Knicks are tied for the N.B.A.’s second-worst offense. They have blown several second-half leads and are near the bottom of the league in 3-pointers taken. They are ranked low in drives to the basket yet somehow are above average in passes per game. So what exactly are they doing with the ball, aside from turning it over, which they are very good at? Often, the players don’t seem to know exactly where they’re supposed to be on the floor.
The Knicks have to make a decision about what they want to accomplish this season, whereas the Nets have clear goals.
The Knicks should take the season to evaluate their young talent for who is going to be part of the core going forward. This means fewer minutes for the Morrises and Randles of the world, and more for the Knoxes, the Robinsons and Frank Ntilikinas. This means figuring out exactly what they have in Allonzo Trier, a dynamic offensive player who is a sieve defensively. (Trier is a decent symbol of the Knicks’ uncertainty: He began the year in the starting lineup. He was pulled by Game 2. On Wednesday night, in a blowout loss to the Pistons, he played four minutes. The game before that: 24 minutes.)
The Knicks have a ton of salary cap space coming this summer and probably another high draft pick. And they seem to have some tradable pieces they can use to build around Barrett. But it’s time to find out what exactly the value of these pieces are, not to give rotation minutes to a veteran like Taj Gibson when his efforts are unlikely to push the team into the playoffs.
And speaking of tradable pieces, Kristaps Porzingis will be at the Garden next week. The Knicks could sure use a guy like him.