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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Knicks and Nets Find Some Common Ground

November 16, 2003|Barbara Barker | Newsday

They can't draw fans, their ownership is unfathomable, they are losing ugly and their coaches are starting to feel the heat.

Whom are we talking about here? The Nets? The Knicks? How about both?

The state of basketball in the New York/New Jersey area is not a pretty one as the two teams renew their across-the-Hudson rivalry Friday night at Continental Airlines Arena. It's hard to say which team needs the win more. The Knicks, who were blown out by Cleveland on Monday? Or the Nets, who have lost three in a row at home?

On the surface, these are two teams with little in common. The Nets reached the NBA Finals the previous two seasons and are a preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference title. They have a talented, exciting and charismatic young team. When this team is on, it plays a thrilling and potent brand of basketball. When it's not, things all too often dissolve into finger-pointing and back-biting.

The Knicks, on the other hand, have been stuck in either neutral or reverse for two seasons. Their controversy-phobic ownership has stocked the franchise with a bunch of bland yes-men. They've also put together a roster that is structurally flawed -- too many power forwards, no true starting point guard and no outside shooting off the bench. Sometimes the Knicks come off as a team that doesn't even care enough to finger-point.

But despite their differences, there's one very important thing both teams share: Neither is meeting expectations, which means their coaches are starting to sweat. That pressure burst to the surface this week when Net Coach Byron Scott and Knicks counterpart Don Chaney each used the same word to describe the play of his team: scared.

In reality, Scott and Chaney have more to be afraid of than their teams do because they could end up taking the fall if things continue to go south.

Chaney got a vote of confidence from General Manager Scott Layden this week but is entering a horrible stretch of the season. All of the Knicks' next nine games are against teams that made the playoffs last season. It could give the Knicks just the jolt of confidence they need to hang on until Antonio McDyess finally comes back -- whenever that might be.

Chaney attributes both his and Scott's struggles to injuries.

"I think it boils down to the same thing since I've been in the NBA: You're as good as your best players," Chaney said. "They've had injuries, so naturally you don't expect them to play at the same level. When everybody comes back to that team, they'll be staring at the Finals again. They're that good. You can't forget the fact that good players win games. OK? Good coaches are good coaches because they have good players. So if you have a couple of players out of your lineup, it's going to be hard for you."

Scott, who is coaching in the final year of his contract, has all kinds of bizarre pressures to operate under. First, no one on the team knows where it is going to be playing next season because the team is up for sale. Second, the departure of a beloved assistant, Eddie Jordan, and a tumultuous offseason surrounding the signing of point guard Jason Kidd has put some pressure on Scott to show what he can do.

Scott hasn't gotten a whole lot of breaks in the early going with Kenyon Martin, Rodney Rogers and Lucious Harris suffering injuries. But the Eastern Conference is so bad and the Nets are so talented that they likely will get their act together.

The question is, will their fans follow? It's hard to say what it would take to get people excited about basketball in New Jersey. Two NBA Finals appearances hasn't done it. Nor has an arena with all the ambience of Costco.

Sadly, in what operates as the capital of professional basketball -- the NBA operates on Fifth Avenue and Secaucus, N.J. -- there is no great place to watch a basketball game anymore. Walking into Madison Square Garden now is like walking into your grandmother's house for an estate sale: The place is dated, depressing and valued only for its memories.

Of course, there's always that chance that both teams could rise above their environs -- do what the Hornets did in their final year in Charlotte and excel despite the circus that surrounds them.

The Nets have a legitimate chance of doing that, of rising above the politics, internal and external, and getting back to the NBA championship before they move to wherever.

The Knicks, however, have so many holes that making the playoffs looks to be a big reach. Their best bet might be to look for the next LeBron James.

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