Battle of the Boroughs

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For the most part James Dolan and Mikhail Prokhorov are a study in contrasts.

Dolan is short in stature, barely speaks to the press and was born into a media empire—his father, Charles Dolan, is the founder of Cablevision (a company his son now runs) and HBO. James Dolan has essentially owned and controlled the New York Knicks for 16 years. Dolan may not have a decades-long, Buss-like family connection to an NBA franchise, but compared to the new owners in the league—Robert Pera, Joe Lacob and, most recently, Vivek Ranadive—Dolan is old NBA money.

The Net’s Russian owner is Dolan’s physical antithesis. Standing 6’8”, the towering Prokhorov is the son of a self-made man (although self-made in the more precarious Soviet sense of the word). Born poor, his father worked his way up through the complex Soviet bureaucracy, while his mother also found success as an engineer; but both Prokhorov’s parents died relatively early in life. Prokhorov made his fortune buying up part of the previously state-owned Russian mining industry as rapid privatization followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Since buying the Nets—then still in New Jersey—Prokhorov has maintained as high a profile in the sporting media as any owner. Brash, funny and willing to incur controversy, Prokhorov is everything that the interview-shy James Dolan isn’t. When Prokhorov moved the Nets to the Brooklyn he took that brashness to another level. Like a Russian Marlo Stanfield moving onto Avon Barksdale’s turf, Prokhorov was intent on aggressively challenging the Knicks’ long-held supremacy in New York City’s basketball landscape. He referred to Dolan as “that little man,” and his team went on a marketing overdrive promoting their stars (Jay-Z being one; not that he needed any promotion) and announcing their presence in the Big Apple with a state-of-the-art arena, myriad billboards, cool new uniforms and sold-out hip-hop shows.

But while their stature and personalities may differ, Dolan and Prokhorov do have one thing in common: they’re both filthy rich—although to be fair, Prokhorov’s net worth of $13 billion dwarfs all NBA owners, Dolan included. But both men are happy to spend, spend, spend when it comes to the franchises they own—soft salary-cap, be damned! Luxury-tax, be damned! The Knicks will spend over $80 million on player salaries this season, while the Nets will spend a whopping $101 million. To put those numbers into some sort of context, the league’s salary cap figure for 2013-14 is $58.6 million, and the San Antonio Spurs—possibly the NBA’s best run franchise for the past decade—will spend just $66 million on player salaries this season.

Even if Prokhorov’s Nets ate into some of the Knicks’ market share last season, New York City is more than big enough to let both teams indulge in their slice of the financial pie. The Knicks and Nets earn, and can spend, the kind of money that the NBA’s smaller market teams can only dream of.

But if the goal of competing in the NBA is to win championships—and both Dolan and Prokhorov would surely say that it is—is this money well spent? At both MSG and the Barclays Center this season, backsides will be on seats, jerseys will be sold, eyes will be glued to television sets; but ultimately, does either team have a chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy come June 2014? Is all this expensive roster-building a case of style over substance—an exercise that may win bragging rights in New York, but not on a league-wide level, which is the broader turf where it really matters?

A busy and noisy off-season
For all the glitz, glamour, swank and swag that Prokhorov and his Brooklyn Nets brought to their new home last year, the actual on-court product was a disappointment. They may have had Jay-Z; they may have the coolest floor in the league—and some of the coolest jerseys—but when you moved past the shiny exterior, there really wasn’t much to get excited about. Brooklyn’s roster was talented, no doubt, but it was also underwhelming. The centerpiece, Deron Williams, is, and was, difficult and moody—looking like a top-five point guard one minute and disappearing and/or feuding with his coach the next. Joe Johnson wows you every three or four games, but in-between you don’t even notice that he’s on the court. And Brook Lopez, arguably the Nets’ most consistent performer last season, isn’t exactly what you’d call the best player on a championship caliber team.

The Nets were talented, dull, and mentally fragile last season. They were nothing like their shiny exterior. Something was missing. Championship-caliber mettle was missing, on-court arrogance was missing—toughness was missing.

However, this past summer the Nets, somewhat at the expense of their long-term prospects (picks and flexibility), got all those attributes in the form of former Celtics superstars, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. KG and Pierce bring with them big-game experience, mental toughness, defense and a zero-compromise, zero-fear attitude on the court. Prokhorov does not want a repeat of last season’s lifeless Game 7 loss to the barely-walking Chicago Bulls.

Dolan and the Knicks, surely with one eye on their noisy neighbours making the biggest splash of the off-season, felt a need to respond.

Last year the team had one of their most successful seasons in recent years, winning 54 games and a playoff series against the hated Celtics, to boot. But the team came undone against the Indiana Pacers. The 3-pointers which had splashed through the hoop so frequently during the regular season stopped falling. The ball stopped moving as well, stuck in the hands of Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith as coach Mike Woodson gave the green light to offense killing iso-ball.

At the other end, with Tyson Chandler hobbled, and the Pacers frontline gargantuan, the Knicks were destroyed on the boards—both offensive and defensive. So, again, with one eye on the Nets, the Knicks made a trade, but not a trade that addressed their defensive weaknesses and inability to protect the rim: they traded picks and Steve Novak for the defensively hopeless Andrea Bargnani.

Prospects for 2013-14
While the Bargnani trade felt like an exercise in knee-jerk reactionism, the Knicks are still a talented team—the core that won over 50 games last season is still there. Carmelo Anthony is still an elite scorer, Tyson Chandler—if he can get back to where he was two seasons ago, health-wise—is one of the best defensive centers in the NBA, and the team still has enough outside shooting to repeat last season’s success from long-range (the regular season, at least).

The Knicks are a playoff team, that’s not in doubt. But as things stand, they’re a fourth or fifth seed—likely no higher. There are still too many question marks surrounding the team to think of them as a contender in the Eastern Conference. Will Carmelo get some time at his most effective position? Will his stated desire to explore free agency next summer act as a major distraction? Will J.R. Smith demand to start, and will the growth of Iman Shumpert be stunted if he does? And how on earth are the Knicks going to defend anyone if Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire occupy the court at the same time? So many questions.

The Nets’ roster poses different questions, but a few troubling questions nonetheless.

They may have the deepest roster in the NBA right now, top-to-bottom, with the additions of those former Celtics, and the supremely gifted Andrei Kirilenko. Crucially, both Garnett and Pierce will be able to play far fewer minutes than they did in their last few years in Boston. But the Nets have a rookie head coach in Jason Kidd, and who knows how he’ll adapt to coaching in the NBA and how he’ll be able to balance all the egos at his disposal. The Nets are in win-now mode, and Kidd doesn’t exactly have the benefit of patiently progressing into NBA coaching life (something that Brad Stevens in Boston does have the luxury of). And while the Nets are talented, they’re very old and, for the most part, very slow. Some of the more athletic teams in the NBA could give them trouble.

Prokhorov’s men certainly have a higher ceiling than their rivals across the Brooklyn Bridge, but still, that ceiling probably isn’t an NBA championship.

While the Knicks and Nets fight each other, on and off the court, for basketball supremacy in NYC, the other big boys in the Eastern Conference aren’t standing frozen in time—they’re getting better. The Bulls, conquerors of the Nets last season, welcome back a rejuvenated Derrick Rose (he’s looked awesome in pre-season) and have added some outside shooting. The Indiana Pacers—dispatchers of the Knicks last season—now have an NBA-caliber bench, and a starting five that is set to be just as tough and talented as it was last year.

The irony is that while the Knicks and Nets are both as good as they’ve been in years, they are locked in a rivalry that looks like it could develop into one the most heated and entertaining duels in NBA history. However, it’s not a battle that—this season, at least—will decide who comes out of the East. The Nets and Knicks will ideally tussle in the playoffs, Dolan and Prokhorov may exchange heated words and the NBA may have to settle things down again, but they’re in a fight that will likely be on a stage a level below the biggest showdown in the Eastern Conference. The biggest fight in the East is more likely to take place in South Beach, the Windy City, or on the prairies of the midwest (in an arena, hopefully), than it is in the more glamorous and lucrative Big Apple.

While the Knicks and Nets will continue to spend, win regular season games and no doubt entertain, the jury remains out as to whether they have what it takes to do what is most important: win an NBA title.

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