The New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets meet up at Madison Square Garden (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) for the first time this season. Maybe this will be the year that produces a legitimate rivalry between Gotham's two teams.
Since the Nets moved to Brooklyn, the "rivalry" has been fueled mainly by off-court drama. There was Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov putting up a Nets billboard next to Madison Square Garden, and referring to Knicks owner James Dolan "that little man." Then there was a mini war of words between Paul Pierce and some Knicks players two years ago. Then rapper Jay Z said the city was "under new management" after a Nets win in 2012.
However, on the court there hasn't been much that screams "rivalry." Will that change tonight?
With that in mind, ESPN.com's Mike Mazzeo and Ian Begley chatted about the upcoming game and the states of both franchises recently.
Mazzeo: OK -- let's get right into it: Begs, what are you most looking forward to out of tonight's matchup?
Begley: Mike, while I'm sure Knicks fans are clamoring for Andrea Bargnani's return to the Garden, I'm going with Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks rookie has shattered nearly everyone's expectations in his first month on the job.
As I noted Thursday, there are plenty of ways to explain just how important he's been to the Knicks. I like this one: With Porzingis on the court, the Knicks have outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions. When he's off the court, they've been outscored by 9.2.
He seems to do something Vine-worthy almost every night. On Wednesday, he had a behind the back pass to a cutting Jose Calderon that surprised the Sixers and everyone else in the building. I think Philly coach Brett Brown captured what everyone's thinking about Porzingis pretty well when he said, "I think that we're going to see great things from him over the next period of years." How about you?
Mazzeo: Porzingis really has been a pleasure to watch so far. And his funny comments yesterday about Knicks fans being better than Nets fans were terrific. How the heck do the Nets go about defending this guy? Thaddeus Young (6-foot-8) is giving up a ton of size and Brook Lopez isn't quick enough to hang with him on the perimeter. Definitely curious to see whether the Nets can continue to build on their two-game winning streak. Chemistry has been a big plus. Their players seem to genuinely enjoy playing with one another, which makes them, despite their talent deficiencies, an easy group for fans to root for.
Begley: Let's forget about tonight for a minute. Which team do you think is better positioned for the future?
Mazzeo: The Knicks -- if only because of the 7-foot-3 wunderkind Porznigis, whose potential seems limitless. The question then becomes what does president Phil Jackson and Co. do with Carmelo Anthony? Do they eventually try to trade him or instead attempt to upgrade their backcourt and depth via free agency or trade and keep the 31-year-old All-Star on the roster?
The Nets, of course, are hampered by the fact they don't have control of a first-round pick until 2019.Their solid frontcourt of Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young is signed long-term. And Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has all the tools to become a real difference-maker if he can develop a consistent midrange jumper. But Brooklyn is going to have to upgrade significantly at the wing and point guard positions. And the only way the Nets can do that -- without sacrificing any of their three best players -- is via free agency. Will players want to sign there? Given that Travis Outlaw (Travis Outlaw??) is the biggest outside free agent the franchise has ever landed (five years, $35 million)?
If superstars win championships -- and they always have in the NBA -- Porzingis' potential to develop into one gives the Knicks a big edge over Brooklyn in this particular category.
Begley: Have to agree with you, Mike. But I don't think the Knicks will move Carmelo this season. It seems like the earliest they'd trade him would be this summer. The salary cap will jump and teams that strike out on the big free agents on the market could have enough space to absorb Carmelo's contract.
This summer will be an interesting one for the Knicks. They'll need to shed some salary if they want to have enough cap space to offer a max contract. And, if Langston Galloway continues to play well, they'll have to use some of their cap space to retain him. So the Knicks might be looking at another summer in 2016 where they land second-tier players on the market.
Thanks to the dreadful Bargnani trade, like the Nets, they won't have a first-round pick in the upcoming draft. So the 2016 draft won't be a particularly exciting one for the locals. Let's switch gears back to tonight's game. What matchup are you most looking forward to?
Mazzeo: That's easy: Brook Lopez vs. Robin Lopez -- the 7-foot twins who now both play in New York for rival franchises after getting paid over the summer. Strangely enough, they don't talk on the court while facing each other. Robin owns the edge in wins so far (5-4), though Brook has posted better numbers -- including when he posterized his brother during a matchup in March 2013. But the matchup everyone would love to see involves their cats: Poupin (Brook) and Prince Edward Zephyr (Robin). Now that would be something.
Begley: Heh, I couldn't care less about their cats, but it's going to be fun to see these two go a whole game without talking to each other. Can you and I try the same thing in the press box? Robin, by the way, shared a funny story on Thursday. He said he and Brook switched classes one day in first grade.
"His teacher noticed because I actually participated in class," Robin said. "I think Brook was quiet the whole time." Anyway, the Knicks are 9-10 entering Friday's game. The Nets are 5-13. Can either team make the playoffs?
Mazzeo: Given the improved state of the Eastern Conference, it seems unlikely. Granted, the Nets have been playing much better of late -- especially defensively, allowing just 93.9 points per 100 possessions in their previous five games -- and the Knicks, fueled by a surprising Porzingis, got off to a strong start. Brooklyn, for its part, is eventually going to have to win some road games (1-10) if it wants to get in the playoff mix. And New York is going to have to hope that Kristaps doesn't hit the rookie wall any time soon. But both teams probably have too many weaknesses -- the Knicks in the backcourt and the Nets from the perimeter and depth-wise (any long-term injury to Lopez, Young or RHJ would be awful) -- to overcome.
Begley: Tend to agree with you here. If what we're seeing from Indiana, Detroit and Charlotte early on is any indication, making the playoffs in the East won't be easy this season. If the Knicks are still in the hunt in late January, it will be interesting to see if management upgrades the backcourt you mentioned. Jose Calderon has started to hit shots (he's shooting 53 percent in his past 10 games). But Calderon doesn't get to the basket often and struggles defensively. Looking forward to seeing what he does against Shane "Tiny Hands" Larkin tonight.