For 50 years, the Knicks and the Nets have battled for the loyalty of over 16 million fans. Now, remembering the past may provide hope for the future.
The Giants vs. the Jets; The Mets vs. the Yankees; Sugar Ray vs. LaMotta.
No matter the sport, the products of New York tend not to get along. No different is the historic rivalry between the Knicks and the Nets, a testy relationship spanning 50 years this season. Over the past five decades, these crosstown teams have endured numerous legal disputes, countless on-court battles, and an incessant struggle for the loyalty of their metropolitan fan base.
The animosity first began in 1967 with the inception of the New York Americans, a founding member of the nascent American Basketball Association. Considered a clear regional invasion by Ned Irish, founder of the NBA’s New York Knicks, the Americans were banished to Teaneck, New Jersey just three months before opening day after Irish coerced all Manhattan venues into blacklisting the team. The franchise was therefore renamed the New Jersey Americans before settling upon the New Jersey Nets the following year.
Much to the pleasure of Irish, who had long argued the financial imprudence of rival leagues, the NBA finally absorbed the ABA in 1976. However, in addition to the standard $2M expansion fee, the Nets were forced to pay an additional $4.8M encroachment tax directly to the Knicks. A devastating financial hit, they were left with no choice but to trade hometown superstar Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers—a loss many fans have failed to forgive to this day.
The Nets remained across the Hudson for the next three and a half decades, finally moving to Brooklyn in 2012 to re-spark the turf war. Yet while neither franchise has been relevant in recent years, a look back at this historic rivalry—marked by three postseason battles—may provide some hope and excitement as they now rebuild for the future.
1983: The Kings of New York
As fate would have it, the sibling rivalry between the Knicks and the Nets reached its first playoff milestone thanks to two brothers from Brooklyn: Bernard and Albert King.
Bernard’s New York Knicks entered the 1983 Playoffs as the #5 seed in the East, pitted against Albert’s #4 Nets in the First Round. The Knicks featured four former All-Stars in King, Bill Cartwright, Truck Robinson, and Paul Westphal. The rotation also included Sly Williams, Louis Orr, Ernie Grunfeld, and Marvin Webster.
Meanwhile, the Nets boasted a strong team of their own, leading the NBA in steals and defensive rating with former All-Stars Otis Birdsong, Buck Williams, and ex-Knick Michael Ray Richardson. King and Darwin Cook completed the starting five with Darryl Dawkins as the sixth man. Yet despite securing their best record since the merger (49-33), the team’s future was cast into sudden doubt as head coach Larry Brown jumped ship for the University of Kansas just two weeks before the playoffs.
After spending the first two seasons of his career in New Jersey followed by stints with the Jazz and Warriors, Bernard King scored 40 points in his first playoff game as a Knick, driving his team to a 118-107 win to start the best-of-three series. His younger brother Albert responded the following night, leading the Nets with 25 points to spark a second-half comeback. However, they fell just short, losing by six as the Knicks served the Nets a disappointing elimination.
Ironically, the Knicks were swept in the following round by none other than Julius Erving, Moses Malone, and the Philadelphia 76ers. Bernard King was finally forgiven by the Nets in 1993, playing his final 32 games with the team that drafted him 7th overall 16 years prior.
1994: The Sons of Jamaica
In 1994, the New York Knicks were led by future HOF center Patrick Ewing, the former #1 pick and native of Jamaica. Meanwhile, following the tragic offseason death of Dražen Petrović, the mantle of the Nets passed to guard Kenny Anderson—himself a product of Jamaica, Queens.
Thanks to Ewing and head coach Pat Riley, the Knicks led the NBA in defensive rating from 1993 to 1995. The Nets were equally aggressive on the offensive end, finishing first in free throw attempts and offensive rebounds. Together, the metropolitan teams comprised nearly half the 1994 Eastern All-Star roster, featuring the Knicks’ Ewing, Charles Oakley, and John Starks alongside Anderson and Derrick Coleman of the Nets. However, all camaraderie soon vanished that postseason as the franchises entered their second First Round battle.
The series showcased numerous contributors, including Kevin Edwards, Benoit Benjamin, Chris Morris, and Armen Gilliam of the #7 Nets against Anthony Mason, Charles Smith, and Derek Harper of the #2 Knicks—a roster compiled by ‘83 Knick Ernie Grunfeld, now general manager.
The Knicks took Game 1 at home, followed by a consecutive Game 2 win thanks to a 25-point, 24-rebound performance by Oakley. However, Anderson responded with a double-double of his own in Game 3, recording 17 points and 11 assists to capture a 93-92 New Jersey win in OT. Nevertheless, Ewing sealed the Nets’ fate with a decisive stat line in Game 5, tallying 36 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals, and 5 blocks to win the series.
The Knicks went all the way to the Finals that year in the Jordan-less East before finally falling to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. Conversely, the Nets made the playoffs only once across the next seven seasons, the franchise marked by disappointment, petulance, and egoism. In fact, the culture and public perception of the Nets became so negative that ownership nearly rebranded the team the New Jersey Swamp Dragons following the 1993-94 season. However, with patience, their fortune would soon change.
2004: A Changing of the Guards
After trading Ewing to the SuperSonics in 2000, the Knicks went 0-4 in postseason appearances, failing to reach the Conference Semifinals until 2013. One such loss came at the hands of a revamped New Jersey squad in 2004, finally granting the Nets a taste of revenge.
The Nets entered the Playoffs a serious contender, having made but lost the previous two NBA Finals to the Lakers and Spurs. Only the Pacers and Pistons finished with better records in the East, though the Nets earned the nod for the #2 seed to face the #7 Knicks in the First Round. Led by All-Star duo Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, the Nets also included Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles, Jason Collins, and former Sixth Man of the Year Rodney Rogers.
The Knicks’ starting five notably featured two former Nets: All-Stars Dikembe Mutombo, who had disappointed in New Jersey the previous season, along with the once-vilified Stephon Marbury. However, they entered the Playoffs without team captain Allan Houston, lost to an ultimately career-ending knee injury. As a result, they were forced to lean heavily upon Kurt Thomas, a declining Penny Hardaway, and Shandon Anderson off the bench.
Beyond the regional rivalry, the matchup was also highly personal. Hardaway and Kidd had previously formed the BackCourt 2000 tandem from 1999-2001 in Phoenix; However, Kidd was eventually swapped for the Nets’ Marbury, leaving the latter with a serious chip on his shoulder. Now, he had a chance to prove his value against the team that traded him three years prior.
The series began with a Game 1 blowout. Despite the Knicks’ best defensive efforts, led by a few trademark blocks from Mutombo, Kidd poured in 14 points, 5 rebounds, 13 assists, and 2 steals for a 107-83 Nets win. The loss was poorly taken by Knicks forward Tim Thomas, who called out New Jersey’s dirty play and labeled Martin “Fugazi”—fake tough. Martin responded by wearing a custom “Whiny Tim” t-shirt during his next media appearance before turning his ire to the court. He followed his 16-point, 12-rebound Game 1 with three more consecutive double-doubles: 22-16 in Game 2, 19-15 in Game 3, and 36-13 in Game 4. The Nets dominated the Knicks each night, sweeping their crosstown rivals for their first head-to-head playoff win.
New Jersey’s celebration was short-lived, however, as they lost the following round to Ben Wallace and the Detroit Pistons. They decided to break up the party that offseason, shipping Kittles to the Clippers and Martin to the Nuggets for future picks. Kidd was later traded back to Dallas in 2008 before ironically finishing his career with Martin as members of the 2012-13 Knicks.
2012-Present: The Battle Of The Boroughs
In 2012, the New Jersey franchise rebranded as the Brooklyn Nets in their new home of Barclays Center across the East River. The move immediately inflamed their rivalry with the New York Knicks, especially after Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov previously taunted the team with a cheeky billboard set opposite Madison Square Garden. The Knicks minced no words with their response, releasing a television commercial declaring, “You can walk like us, you can talk like us, but you ain’t never gonna be like us.” A meeting was eventually arranged between Prokhorov, Knicks owner James Dolan, and NBA commissioner David Stern in an effort to calm the waters between the boroughs.
While neither team has finished with a winning record the past three seasons, they’ve remained more than successful financially. The Knicks are currently the top-valued NBA franchise ($3.3B), while the Nets have leapt from 14th ($357M) to 7th ($1.8B) since the move. However, both teams embraced the rebuild process this summer, paving the way for brighter days ahead.
The Nets traded nine-year mainstay Brook Lopez to the Lakers for 21-year-old D’Angelo Russell, while also taking on some of the league’s worst contracts (Timofey Mozgov, Allen Crabbe, DeMarre Carroll) in return for future draft picks. While they look to improve beyond last year’s 20-62 record, they continue to suffer the consequences of a disastrous 2013 trade for Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, Keith Bogans, Marshon Brooks, Kris Joseph, and four first round picks. The team achieved just 44 wins under coach Jason Kidd that year, and the once-promising core quickly parted ways.
Among the most effective players on the Nets is Jeremy Lin, who first broke out in the NBA on February 4, 2012 as a member of the New York Knicks. Kicking off a 26-game streak known as “Linsanity,” Lin scored a stunning 25 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals against his present team. He joined the rising Brooklyn squad last season, yet played only 36 games due to injury and will now miss the entire 2017-18 campaign after rupturing a patellar tendon on opening night. Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris look to step up in his absence.
The Knicks meanwhile pulled the plug on Carmelo Anthony’s 6 ½ year tenure this offseason, shipping him to Oklahoma City for Enes Kanter, Doug McDermott, and a 2018 second-round pick after finishing 31-51 last season. The move effectively promoted 22-year-old Kristaps Porziņģis to team captain, while hopeful point guard of the future Frank Ntilikina was selected 8th overall in the NBA Draft. They also paid a hefty sum to reclaim promising young star Tim Hardaway Jr., signing him to a 4-year, $71M deal to round out a starting five of Kanter, Porziņģis, Ramon Sessions, and one-time Net Courtney Lee.
The Knicks and the Nets will face off next on Friday, October 27 at Madison Square Garden, marking 50 years of their historic rivalry. Yet while neither side may look pretty this season, both young teams will flash glimpses of hope for the future of New York basketball.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-reference.com
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