The Knicks face off against their New York City rival Brooklyn Nets as the two struggling franchises begin to show some promise for the future.
The last time the Knicks played the Nets, a star was born:
After battling injuries and a less than flattering start on offense, Frank Ntilikina gave Knicks fans a glimpse of his defensive pedigree. But the story of that night wasn’t only Frankie Smokes; it was, in many ways, the start of another point guard, Jarrett Jack. After starting the season 0-3 with Ramon Sessions at the helm, Jeff Hornacek went to Jack to shake things up. Knicks Twitter was not happy (you remember who you are!) and it seemed like the 2017-18 season was rolling toward the edge of a cliff.
Despite the vitriol from the fans, the Knicks beat the Nets 107-86 that night. Jarrett Jack helped push the pace of the offense while also taking care of the basketball, something the team had not done in their first three games. Following the win against the Nets, the Knicks won five of their next six games, and the season was saved from early extinction.
Meanwhile, the Nets, who started the season with a surprising 3-2 record, took a wrong turn after that Knicks loss. They lost nine of their next twelve games, while adding D’Angelo Russell to the injury list after having already lost Jeremy Lin to a season-ending injury. Another lost season in Barclays? Think not. The atmosphere is different in Brooklyn with Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks leading the show. While the Nets were losing games, their compete level, a terrible sports cliche (but like all cliches, sometimes appropriate), remained high despite the losses. Their effort has since been rewarded with wins in three of their past five games.
The Nets have 11 wins already this season, which is saying something for a franchise that has not won more than 21 games since trading away their future for aging stars.
Let’s take a look at a few things to watch for in tonight’s game.
The Return of the 2015 Lottery
As much as Kenny Atkinson has helped the Nets find respectability on the basketball court, General Manager Sean Marks is doing a fantastic job reshaping the roster from above. He has done what I advocated the Knicks to do before they filled their salary books with large contracts, which is to understand where the franchise sits within their competitive window, and instead of using cap space to chase quick fixes in the form of superstars who are never going to sign with you anyway, leverage cap space to acquire other team’s problems with young assets attached to them. The Nets did this to obtain D’Angelo Russell while taking Timofey Mozgov off the Lakers hands.
Marks’ latest trade leveraged less cap space, but once again took the route of acquiring young assets that are potentially undervalued. The Nets added Jahlil Okafor (the number 3 overall pick in 2015, one pick before the Knicks drafted Kristaps Porzingis) and Nik Stauskas (the number 8 overall pick in 2014). After trading away all of those lottery picks, the Nets have in some form acquired them back by adding Okafor, Stauskas, and D’Angelo Russell (number two overall pick in 2014).
Kenny Atkinson wants to give Okafor time to learn the Nets motion offense and defensive schemes before inserting him into the lineup, so we might not see him tonight against the Knicks, but be on the lookout for the player the Knicks could have drafted instead of Kristaps Porzingis had the lottery balls bounced differently back in 2015.
Remember, the Knicks ended the 2014-15 season with the league’s second-worst record, giving them the second-best lottery odds that year. But during the lottery drawing, both the Lakers and Sixers jumped them, pushing the Knicks back to the four spot. Had the Knicks received either the second or third overall picks, it is probable that they would have drafted either D’Angelo Russell or Jahlil Okafor instead of Kristaps Porzingis.
Porzingis vs. Hollis-Jefferson
I love this matchup despite the fact it causes problems for the Knicks. I suppose it’s my basketball tactician side coming out, but I think Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a unique defender against Porzingis that forces us to consider which position best suits the Unicorn.
We have talked at length about the problems stretch 4’s create for Porzingis on defense, but Hollis-Jefferson adds a different challenge. He is the rare power forward with the athleticism and length to pose a problem for Porzingis on offense.
The Caris LeVert Impact
Another young player making an imprint on the Nets roster is Caris LeVert. If you’re a Knicks fan who likes to focus on less prominent players, watch LeVert tonight.
A lot of LeVert's assists come because he knows where everyone will be in the offense, but this one came because he broke the defense down. Once he loses Oubre, Jason Smith is so concerned that he forgets about Zeller entirely. Easy dunk pic.twitter.com/hV5yiWvwRx
— Nicholas LeTourneau (@nick_lt) December 13, 2017
LeVert isn’t shooting the ball as well as he did in his rookie season, but he’s one of those players who had a good feel for the game. He’s the type of player I would like to make videos about if he was on the Knicks, since he does a lot of things that don’t necessarily show up in the box score.
Game starts at 7:30 p.m. EST in Brooklyn, New York.