The Nets don’t play in the World’s Most Famous Arena. LeBron James and Kevin Durant have never waxed poetic about the rich history of pro basketball at Barclays Center. When players around the league talk about the ambience of the arena in Brooklyn, they are more likely to utter the word “meh” than “Mecca.”
Yet as the Knicks and Nets head toward an offseason that will be pivotal to the rebuild of both teams, it is becoming apparent that when it comes to attracting a top free agent, Madison Square Garden is the only edge the Knicks have over the Nets.
The Knicks have a great building, but the Nets have a great foundation, one that could make them a team worth watching — and playing for — for years to come.
This clearly was on display Monday as both teams hosted games on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. While the Knicks dropped their sixth straight, an ugly 127-109 loss to Oklahoma City, the Nets surged past the Sacramento Kings, 123-94, for their fourth straight victory.
With 17 wins in their last 22 games, the Nets are one of the hottest teams in the league. Monday’s win completed an impressive eight-day stretch that included a pummeling of the Celtics at home, an overtime win over the Rockets on the road despite a 58-point night by James Harden and a comeback from a 21-point deficit in Orlando.
“Brooklyn’s in a really nice rhythm right now,” said Kings coach Dave Joerger, whose team scored only nine points in the final quarter.
He’s not the only one who should take notice. It’s time for the Nets to stop being an afterthought when it comes to this summer’s free agency.
The Nets have room for two max contracts this offseason and have two first-round draft picks. They also have a young team that is playing really well, a team that is a superstar away from being one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
How long would it take Durant or Kawhi Leonard to play a meaningful game deep in the playoffs if either one signed with the Knicks? They are in the first year under a new coach and management team, and their main focus this season has been sorting through their young talent and trying to figure out whom they want to keep. Plus mystery surrounds the return of their best player, Kristaps Porzingis. There is no guarantee he will be the same kind of superstar when he returns from his ACL tear.
The Nets, who had 28 wins last season, are further along than anyone thought. Two-and-a-half years into their rebuild under coach Kenny Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks, they have the sixth-best record in the conference.
This is a team loaded with young talent. D’Angelo Russell, who had 31 points and eight assists against the Kings, seems to have turned a corner and might merit All-Star consideration. Spencer Dinwiddie, a player the Nets found in the developmental league two years ago, is a leading candidate for sixth man of the year. And Caris LeVert, the best player on the team before his injury, is expected back sometime after the All-Star break.
Atkinson knows the better his team plays, the more appealing a destination Brooklyn becomes.
“Hopefully, there’s really talk among players in this league, like ‘hey, that’s a neat place to go to,’ ” he said. “[They think] they have a good culture. They care for their players. It’s a positive culture, a collaborative culture. You really want players to talk about that, to say that’s a place I’d love to go.”
Even if that place isn’t the area’s most famous arena.