During the summer of 2010, in the height of the Lebron James sweepstakes, the New Jersey Nets commissioned an enormous, building-sized billboard across from Madison Square Garden. The appearance of the billboard, featuring Mikhail Prokhorov and Jay-Z, sparked some anger and frustration from people at the Garden and Knicks fans everywhere. The coverage of the publicity stunt in the Daily News reveals some interesting things floating in the air during that time:
Nets CEO Brett Yormark was surprised that the Knicks would be upset by such a move, while suggesting that he does not believe his team’s cross-river rivals are taking seriously the Nets’ bid to land James.
“When we went to our ad agency and said, ‘Give us some available billboards,’ they came to us with this location. Obviously we felt it was a bold statement but we decided to go for it,” said Yormark, one of at least five recruiters, including Prokhorov and Jay-Z, expected to make a pitch to James in Thursday morning’s wee hours. “If (the Knicks are) upset, they’re upset, but I can’t suspect they really are. They don’t think about us.”
The 225’x95′ sign sends to the Knicks a not-so-subtle message. More importantly for the Nets, they are hoping that it also convinces superstar free agents such as James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh that they are to be taken seriously in their effort to rebuild after last season’s 12-70 debacle.
The Nets have been on a marketing roll since the end of the season, making headlines by getting Prokhorov approved as their new owner, hiring charismatic coach Avery Johnson and trading Yi Jianlian to clear valuable cap space that can be used to lure James and one of his free-agent pals.
There’s just so much to deal with in that short string of quotes. In fact, it’s so much, I can’t begin to do it here. Only five years later, Brand Brooklyn has become wildly successful. The Nets…not so much. We all know the KG/Pierce plan that fell apart as fast as you can say “takin’ ovah.” We all know that “hiring charismatic coach Avery Johnson” turned out to be less than a fan favorite and hardly resulted in anything worth mentioning. James shunned Brooklyn. He shunned NY. In fact, he teamed up with the two players mentioned in that article to win a couple of titles in Miami. The Knicks and Nets both collapsed into an assortment of quivering piles of blubber, despite spots of fun along the way. The 12-70 season the Nets endured, just prior to the offseason of The Decision, seems quite familiar to Brooklyn fans at the moment. Knicks fans have fresh trauma from last season’s 17-65 apocalypse, but there’s no dreams (delusions) of Lebron James to sustain our hopes this time. That’s where this story diverges.
In 2010, both clubs were left holding flowers, like some sad, basketball bachelors. Each team attempted to quickly regroup by wheeling and dealing and trading picks. The Knicks got a broken Amare and a bored Bargnani, not to mention dealing the whole deck for Melo. The Nets mortgaged the future on two decrepit Celtics and traded away everything they had in their draft pick bank account in the process. Somewhere in that mess, however, the Knicks got a little smart and a lot lucky. While handing out our own first round picks like they were on fire, the league rules prevented us from dealing our 2015 pick. The 2015 draft, as blind luck would have it, seems like the deepest draft in a decade or more. Even after a 65-loss season, the Knicks dropped to 4th in that serendipitous lottery, and defied common ignorance to nab Kristaps Porzingis. If you ask Knicks fans about the kid, you’re likely to hear things about Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Arvydas Sabonis, Kevin Garnett, Thor – son of Odin, the Singularity, or some combination of all those things. The Knicks have also taken on a different, smarter personality as an organization, looking for solid pros and targeting under-the-radar assets. They’ve invested in developing a D-League team that means something. They’ve stashed a couple of young, promising European players. And so on…
The Nets are in a tough spot. In a different universe, I’d feel some sympathy for Brooklyn fans. That universe would start without an obnoxious billboard next to the Garden, and without the Brand Brooklyn blitz that’s swept the area with much bigger style than substance. Maybe it’s just me, but there are few things I dislike more than people who talk big, but have nothing to actually back up the talk. The marketing has outpaced the play, which is a very convenient metaphor for the geography of Downtown Brooklyn as well. That’s a different story. The Nets managed to nab a solid player in the first round. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is never going to be a star player, which is trouble considering the Nets’ draft pick situation, but he’s already shown that he can impact basketball games in a number of ways. He’s a pro. The franchise is in dire straits as it cruises towards an epically bad season without any drafts picks for as far as the eye can see, and plenty of more attractive destinations for the many free agents-to-be in the next couple of years.
Tonight’s game is hardly a referendum on any of those big picture things. It’s just another game in a long NBA season. The Knicks aren’t going to accomplish anything significant if they beat the Nets. The Nets aren’t going to halt their current death spiral if they manage to upset the Knicks. The impact of the contest is rather minimal in the end. The narratives that extend back to 2010, however, influence the way fans will react, and perhaps how the media will drum up interest in an otherwise pedestrian game. There is no rivalry, although there seems to be animosity. The feeling is more like two broke guys staring at each other and resenting the predicament through the person standing before them. I hate you because you remind me so much of myself. So what of the game?
If the Knicks lose this game, it will be because Carmelo Anthony continues to shoot inconsistently. It will be because he allows Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to slow him down in a way that seems confounding to the imagination. If the Knicks lose the game, it will be because Thaddeus Young is the type of athlete that could give our young Porzingis a rough night. Young is long, athletic, and can defend both the perimeter and post with some ability. He’s just good enough on both ends of the floor to exploit Kristaps and take him out of the game. If the Knicks lose, it will be because Joe Johnson finds his shot and Afflalo loses his. If the Knicks lose, it will be because Jarrett Jack feasts on the ham-like flesh of Jose Calderon and plays out of his head for 48 minutes. If the Knicks lose, it will be because Shane Larkin and his bench mates will outplay the Knicks’ subs. As I keep going, these scenarios get more far fetched, but you get the idea.
If the Knicks win, it will be because Carmelo Anthony relishes his match ups with guys like Hollis-Jefferson and puts guys like that in the spin cycle. Coming off an illness and a down game, Melo seems primed to go off for 40 points tonight. Everything would point in that direction. This is his town and he’s got a little something to prove, even if it’s just a little something. If the Knicks win, it will be because Kristaps Porzingis evolved into his next Pokemon form and leaves Thaddeus Young in a heap of sad desperation. There’s no Bargnani for our Latvian Superman to torment, so it’s got to be Thad. If the Knicks win it’s because they’re a better, deeper team. Really it’s that simple, despite all the narrative games we might play. I haven’t even mentioned the “Bropez” thing. I doubt that matchup will decide the outcome of the game in any meaningful way. It’s just quirky and funny.
This game is certain to be substance over style, both on and off the court. That’s the Knicks’ salvation and the Nets’ demise in a nutshell. Grab your popcorn. Let’s go Knicks.