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 ambiance 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 Madison Square Garden is the only edge the Knicks have over the Nets when it comes to attracting a top free agent.
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 was clearly on display Monday as both teams hosted games on Martin Luther King 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.
The Nets are one of the hottest teams in the league, having gone 17-5 over their last 22 games. Monday’s win completed an impressive eight-day stretch which included a pummeling of the Celtics at home, an overtime win over the Rockets on the road despite a 58-point night from James Harden and a 21-point comeback for a win at Orlando.
“Brooklyn’s in a really nice rhythm right now,” said Kings coach Dave Joerger, whose team scored just 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 plus 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 East.
How long would it take Durant — or Kawhi Leonard — to play a meaningful game deep in the playoffs if they were to go with the Knicks? The Knicks 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 trying to figure which player they want to keep. Plus mystery surrounds the return of the team’s best player, Kristaps Porzingis, as there is no guarantee he will be the same kind of superstar when he returns from his knee injury.
The Nets, who had 28 wins last year, are further along than anyone thought. Two-and-a-half years into their rebuild under coach Kenny Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks, the Nets are currently positioned to be the No. 6 seed in the East.
This is a team loaded with young talent. D’Angelo Russell, who led the Nets against the Kings with 31 points and eight assists, seems to have turned a corner and may merit All-Star consideration. Spencer Dinwiddie, a player the Nets found in the D-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.’ ” Atkinson 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 most famous arena in the area.