If there is a term defining this NBA season, it must be “load management”. The Raptors applied it to Kawhi Leonard. The 76ers kind of did the same with Joel Embiid. On and on. It was all about keeping players fit and ready for the final stretch — the playoffs and the run for the title.
But I’m here to talk about the second-most common theme of the season, something that informs the upcoming offseason, including the draft and the later free agency period. I’m talking about the history and legacy of NBA franchises and the impact they have on players picking one or another based on them.
After LeBron James moved west to Los Angeles, this seems to have entered the spotlight more than ever. In truth, it can’t be denied that history definitely played a huge part in James’ decision to go play for the Lakers.
If we isolate the pure sport-based achievements of the purple and gold lately, we wouldn’t have much to speak about. The Lakers have not had a winning season since 2013, the last year they made the playoffs. They have won 163 games of 492 played during the past six years. They have employed three coaches in that span and are about to name a fourth. What is to like about that when choosing your probable final team to play professionally?
Well, turns out the Los Angeles Lakers happen to play in Hollywood and to have a trophy case bigger than any other in the NBA excluding Boston. They have 16 titles to their name. They have that “winning aura” to them. Sadly for them, though, that perception may be changing.
Out of left field and after being the laughingstock of the Association for most — if not all — of its existence, the Los Angeles Clippers seem to be on the forefront of the LA area when discussing potential free agent destinations, even with their zero championships and paltry 14 playoff appearances. They are building something great and have great “role” players in Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander feels like he may be the real deal. There are movable pieces, cap space, and draft picks to bear further fruits down the road. The situation can’t be better.
To any free agent’s mind, and to mine too, that’s the correct narrative. The Clippers are much better positioned than the Lakers. They are better now. They will be better in the near future. And they have everything to be better on the horizon and long run. It’d be logical for anyone to pick them as a destination.
But what about New York?
What about the Knicks and the Nets? There are not many differences between these two franchises and those of Los Angeles. They share (not to the same extent as the L.A. teams, who share an arena) the same market. The population of the town has been split between both teams since the moment they’re born. Historically, Brooklyn (or, for so long, New Jersey) has been the little brother to New York’s brighter lights. Understandable.
The problem I’m finding this season, though, is two different takes on history and legacy depending on different franchises. While everybody seems to agree on the Lakers vs Clippers discussion coming down to a case of current-state-of-the-franchises, leaving apart history and built-in-the-past legacies, things look different in the battle for New York dominance.
It has always felt that the Knicks are something out of this world. New York is the world’s epicenter and basketball mecca, but the narrative of the Knicks being much better than the Nets in the past is blatantly wrong. Plain and simple.
Yes, the Knicks have two NBA championships to their name, back in 1970 and 1973. This is the same number of titles as the Nets, who claimed two ABA ones in 1974 and 1976. So much time has passed that I personally don’t even care about those titles, honestly, but being fair to history, both franchises are tied on those terms.
In the slightly more recent history, the Knicks have made the playoffs 15 times since the 1990-91 season. The Nets have played postseason ball 14 times in the same period. That, my friends, is just one season difference.
Both franchises have reached the Finals two times, losing them all. The Knicks made them during the 90s and the Nets during the early 2000s.
And still, it feels like the Knicks have a tremendous history hanging on their backs. Their past is glorified, much less deservedly than that of any other franchise. Let alone the Nets. But the truth is, Brooklyn and most of all New Jersey, have kicked New York’s ass badly since the turn of the century and never was that far from the Knicks in decades prior to that moment.
Still, the selling point for the Nets this summer seems to be the new culture the team has established with its front office, coach, and player development and nurturing system. The Knicks, though, are a mess even bigger than that of present Los Angeles, which at least happen to have LeBron James in town already.
New York finished the season with a ridiculously low 17 wins. The best players in New York’s roster are mostly unproven rookies (Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson) and volatile youngsters (Dennis Smith Jr., Frank Ntilikina, Emmanuel Mudiay). The Knicks front office just traded—or rather gave away—the best player in the team’s recent past in Kristaps Porzingis earlier in the year in an exchange of basically hopes of a better future, of which nothing is a sure thing.
Given they can’t sell their current state, they’re relying on history and legacy. And writers and fans seem to be buying into it, which boggles my mind. If someone picks New York as a destination instead of Brooklyn purely basing his decision on history and past achievements, I may have to leave the NBA’s circle. The same goes for placement. Yes, the Knicks play at MSG, but the Nets’ house isn’t far behind it in what it offers and is placed in a borough that’s highly regarded nowadays.
If we’re going to award the Clippers the leading spot in the race for Los Angeles, we should also coincide in that Brooklyn is currently leading the Knicks in the one for New York.
It has never a moment in time in which players are more intelligent about their decisions when going here or there. Players want to be at the best of possible situations and play the scenarios that favor their careers the most in pure sports terms and achievements. It doesn’t matter if it implies building a superteam in Phoenix, Minnesota or Memphis. If the chance arrives, they’ll take it.
Franchise legacies may have worked back in the day, but they don’t feel important, not that much at least, anymore. So please, let’s talk about every franchise using the same denominator and baseline. New York, on a cultural plane, would always to Brooklyn, the same the Lakers will always trump the Clippers on history books.
But in the present-day conversation about free agents picking destinations and what matters most, both historical underdogs (Nets and Clippers) are past their yesteryear poor-brother labels. Focus on today, treat each franchise as is currently built, and you’ll discover a whole new landscape. Namely, the one that will shape the league for years to come and in which the Brooklyn Nets look poised to feature as a prominent force if all things are properly considered.