The Good, the Bad and the Bizarre for the Knicks and the Nets

The Good, the Bad and the Bizarre for the Knicks and the Nets

The Knicks and Nets have had disappointing seasons thus far, punctuated by both teams losing to the Los Angeles Lakers this week.

On some level, this was to be expected. The Knicks seemed to have a poorly constructed roster with too many forwards. The Nets, having traded D’Angelo Russell to make way for Kyrie Irving, were expected to be better than .500 but with lumps, given that this season is a bridge year as the franchise awaits Kevin Durant’s likely return next season. The lumps have, instead, been mountains.

It hasn’t been all bad, though. There have been some rousing wins, great plays and signs of a bright future for each team. At the halfway mark of the season, we give you the good, the bad and the bizarre.

Overview: This might end up being one of the worst seasons in franchise history. Barring some miracle, the Knicks will not make the playoffs, again. The team showed a spark after David Fizdale (4-18) was fired and Mike Miller (8-15) took over as the interim head coach. But most of the young players, like Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson, have not played much better than they did last year. The veterans — Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson — haven’t fit well together. Dennis Smith Jr. has missed half the season with injuries and has been unproductive when he has made it on the court.

At least R.J. Barrett, even though he has struggled with his shot, looks to have a long career in front of him. He is a strong defender with a knack for hustle plays. But even so, this feels like yet another lost season for the Knicks.

The Knicks got their first road win of the year in early November against a surprisingly good Mavericks team. The Knicks also got a strong all-around performance out of Marcus Morris Sr. — 29 points on 22 shots — and they needed all of it, since Luca Doncic scored 38 points for Dallas. It was the first time Kristaps Porzingis had faced his former team as an opponent, and he dropped a line nearly identical to Morris Sr.’s: 28 points on 22 shots.

The win came after blowout losses by 21 (against Sacramento) and 20 (at Detroit) and improved the Knicks’ record to 2-7.

At one point, this game was 0-0, which is about the best thing you can say for the Knicks. They were down 18 at the end of the first quarter and things progressively got worse. At halftime, the Bucks were up 72-45, effectively ending the game with two quarters left, giving Milwaukee its 12th straight win. The Knicks season had already become dreary. The loss put them at 4-17.

Ntilikina drove the right side off a soft pick and roll set by Robinson early in the second quarter. Once Ntilikina got near the basket, he lobbed a pass near the rim that Robinson caught well behind his head and viciously threw down as some Nets defenders ducked for cover. It was the kind of alley oop that very few players can catch, but Robinson is one of them. While he still fouls too often, he has improved slightly this season and remains a reliable shotblocker. No one on the Knicks is more likely to generate highlight-reel plays.

After the Knicks were blown out by the Cleveland Cavaliers, dropping them to 2-8, Steve Mills, the team’s president, and Scott Perry, the general manager, held an impromptu news conference to tell reporters that the Knicks brass was unhappy with the direction of the team. They did not take any responsibility for how that team was constructed, though, aside from Mills’ saying, “We think we collectively have to do a better job of delivering the product on the floor that we said we would do at the start of the season.” Mills said the team still had faith in Fizdale, whom he fired less than a month later.

Morris Sr. is not a part of the Knicks future. He is a prospective free agent, and while he has said the right things about staying with the Knicks, there are certainly playoff contenders who will want to shell out some cash for his talents.

But he is having the best year of his career and is the team’s most reliable performer. He’s averaging a career high in points (19.1) on a solid 58.3 true shooting percentage. His 3-point percentage is at the core of his efficiency — 45.7 percent — good for third in the N.B.A., behind George Hill and J.J. Redick. He’s shooting better from outside than he is from inside the arc (42.8 percent), but he also is averaging a career high in free-throw attempts per game (4.6). The team’s offensive rating is 106.4 when Morris is playing and 99.9 when he is not. To put that in perspective, 106.4 would place the Knicks 22nd in the league in offense; 99.9 would be dead last by a large margin.

Overview: This season was always supposed to be a wash, but the injuries to players like Irving (missed 26 games with a shoulder injury) and Caris LeVert (missed 24 games with a thumb injury) have hampered the team’s development in the short term. Irving has already publicly suggested that the team needs more pieces to contend for a championship. The Nets might not even make the playoffs this year, which would, even for a wash season, be a setback. But unlike the Knicks, the Nets have Durant waiting in the wings. That will always temper whatever happens this season.

Getting a win against a division rival is great. Doing it without your best player is even better. Spencer Dinwiddie put on a show, pouring in 32 points and dishing 11 assists, giving Nets fans early hope that the team could stay afloat without Irving. And they did. They moved above .500 for only the second time all season, after losing to Boston just two days earlier. The Nets would win six of their next nine, before hitting a seven-game losing skid.

It seems unfair to include any loss without Irving, so I won’t. I’ll pick an early November loss to Detroit because it was a winnable game, and Irving had a triple double (20 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists). The Nets even had a 13-point second-half lead. This is the kind of loss that haunts you when it comes to seeding or just trying to make the playoffs. The loss dropped the Nets to 2-4. They had no answer for Andre Drummond, who scored 25 points and snatched 20 rebounds. The Nets have more talent than the Pistons, even without Durant. This one should have been a win. (The Oct. 27 loss against the Memphis Grizzlies warrants a special mention, but a heartbreaking loss at the buzzer in overtime against a decent team gets sympathy.)

Dinwiddie hit a midrange pull-up with 1.6 seconds left to win the game for the Nets, 108-106. The Cavaliers are not a good team, but any win without Irving was valuable for the Nets. There are plenty of dazzling ball handing displays from Irving that also merit consideration — but we are partial to game winners.

After a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, Irving told reporters that the gap in talent between championship contenders and the Nets was “glaring, in terms of the pieces that we need in order to be at that next level.” He would go on to list several players who he suggested were a part of the championship core. He did not list the whole team, of course, and the quote was seen as a slight to the unnamed.

Of course, Irving was correct. Not all the players on the Nets right now will be part of a championship core. But as a leader, there are some things you just don’t say out loud. What made the comment especially baffling was that it was only Irving’s second game back from his injury — and the Nets had performed better in his absence.

He had a terrible game against the Sixers, shooting 6 of 21 from the field. In a game where the Nets lost by 11 points, the team was outscored by 29 points when Irving was on the floor. In addition, Irving has a history of throwing shots at teammates, particularly in Boston last season. All seems to be fine right now for the Nets, but Irving’s track record suggests that as the losses pile up, there will be more flare-ups. And even the prospect of having his close friend Durant to pass the ball to might not be enough to limit them.

Dinwiddie carried the Nets while Irving and LeVert were injured. He led the team in scoring in 21 of the 26 contests that Irving missed. In those games, Dinwiddie scored at least 30 points six times. He was the offense for a team that lacked playmakers once Irving went down. If the Nets make the playoffs, the 13-13 stretch without Irving will have been crucial to get there. During that time, with Dinwiddie on the court, the Nets had a 112.6 offensive rating. This would be good for one of the best offenses in the N.B.A., extrapolated over a full season. When Dinwiddie was off the floor, the Nets were at 89.9 during this period — which would easily be last in the league.


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