Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 5, 2013

Battle For Gotham, And Nothing Else

No doubt there was a time, back when the marketing departments at ABC and the three cable networks that together share the national broadcast rights for the league’s games got to see this year’s NBA schedule, that the executives at TNT must have felt like they had been given a gift. Turner Network Television has been broadcasting NBA games since the cable network went on the air in 1988, and the weekly back-to-back games marketed as “TNT NBA Thursday” consistently rank among the channel’s highest rated programming. There on the schedule as the front end of the double-header on the first Thursday in December was a dream matchup between two teams with huge payrolls and even bigger aspirations. The New York Knicks would cross the East River to visit the Barclays Center and battle the Brooklyn Nets for bragging rights in Gotham, before a national television audience. What network wouldn’t want to have that on their schedule?

As it turns out, maybe TNT. Because while the most devoted loyalists of both teams are quick to insist that the NBA season is still young, as the losses for both squads mount cries of “it’s still early” are sounding increasingly hollow. Instead, the two NBA franchises that share the league’s largest market look ever more and more like object lessons in how having a phenomenally rich owner doesn’t guarantee success for a sports franchise.

James L. Dolan is the second generation head of Cablevision and The Madison Square Garden Company, putting him in day-to-day control not only of the Knicks, but also of the NHL’s Rangers and WNBA’s Liberty, as well as a minor league hockey team. With the revenue generated by both his family media empire and patrons of the venue that styles itself “the world’s most famous arena,” Dolan has regularly been willing to open his checkbook in support of his teams. Unfortunately for Knicks fans the spending has rarely been accompanied by a coherent plan for development of the team. It’s been four decades since the Knicks won a championship and a decade and a half since they played for one. When New York defeated Boston in the first round of the NBA playoffs last spring it was the first time the Knicks had won a playoff series since 2000.

Dolan’s latest big acquisition was the 2011 trade that brought forward Carmelo Anthony to Madison Square Garden from Denver. While Anthony is a great pure shooter, there was little in his time in Denver to suggest that he could lead a team to a deep run in the playoffs. That became even more likely when Dolan traded away the core of the team that veteran basketball executive Donnie Walsh had built. After the Anthony deal, no one was surprised when Walsh left at the end of the 2011 season.

Still, hope rose for Knicks fans when the team displaced the Celtics at the top of the Atlantic Division last year, winning 54 games. In his first full season as head coach, Mike Woodson made it clear that Anthony was the center of the Knicks universe, and the six-time All Star played with far more passion and focus than he had while often feuding with former coach Mike D’Antoni. While their season was cut short by an abrupt second-round playoff loss to the Pacers, the Knicks began this campaign with the second highest payroll in the league and announced designs on competing with Miami for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.

Mikhail D. Prokhorov is a billionaire Russian jetsetter who is rich enough to make Dolan look middle class by comparison. Prokhorov became owner of the Nets in 2009, and immediately announced plans to move the franchise from New Jersey to Brooklyn. As plans for Brooklyn’s Barclays Center took shape, the Nets tweaked the Knicks with a gigantic billboard featuring Prokhorov and minority owner Jay-Z, splashed across the side of a skyscraper adjacent to Madison Square Garden. The Nets played their first game in what is now Gotham’s most fashionable borough just over a year ago, and wound up making it to the playoffs for the first time in six years. But in the first round they ran into an undermanned but determined team from Chicago. After a blowout win in Game One Brooklyn lost three straight, and while the Nets rallied twice to force a Game Seven, in the end it was Chicago that moved on to the next round of the playoffs.

Late in June Prokhorov’s Nets went all in on winning now, trading half the roster and a raft of future draft picks to the Celtics for the veterans, bordering on geriatrics, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. With the addition of those two superstars, Brooklyn went into this season with a starting lineup that had a combined 35 All Star appearances. They also began this campaign with the highest payroll in the league at $101 million, not including a projected $82 million luxury tax bill. Just like their city neighbors, they had clear designs on competing with Miami for supremacy in the Eastern Conference.

And then both teams played some games. So on Thursday when they tipped off before a full house at the lovely new arena in Atlantic Yards, the contest between the Knicks and the Nets was a game pitting the league’s two most under-performing squads against one another. The two teams began the game a combined 8-26 on the season. Only one team in the league had a worse record than the Knicks. Only four, obviously including the Knicks, had a worse record than the Nets.

Both teams could blame injuries to some extent. Neither squad has played many games with its full projected starting lineup healthy and on the floor. But every fan knows that injuries are a part of every sport. Injuries alone don’t account for the woeful state of the Knicks and Nets. Rather in both cases it’s a reflection of money spent rashly rather than well. The Knicks remain a one-man show, and even LeBron James has learned that one man alone cannot win a championship. The Nets have a core that is older than rope, and a rookie head coach in Jason Kidd who appears utterly overwhelmed; a hiring decision based on celebrity rather than talent or experience.

Still the game was on the schedule, and so they played on, before a large, mostly quiet, and early departing crowd in Brooklyn. The Knicks took a quick lead, withstood a second quarter rally, and then turned the game into a 30-point rout in the second half, ending a nine game losing streak while embarrassing their rival at home. Until they meet again late next month in the newly renovated arena perched above Penn Station, Manhattan takes bragging rights over Brooklyn, and the multi-millionaire bests the billionaire. But in the end both teams are going nowhere. It’s all money down the drain, and the fans of both the Knicks and the Nets are the ultimate losers.


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