Basement Battle in Brooklyn

Basement Battle in Brooklyn
December 5, 2013, 1:30 pm
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The first place Boston Celtics are off tonight. In lieu of a game, and with one eye on tomorrow’s visit from the Nuggets, the Celts will presumably spend the evening lounging comfortably on their Atlantic Division throne. Basking in the glow of undisputed success and their rightful place alongside the rival Heat and Pacers atop the Eastern Conference standings.

At some point, just for fun, maybe a cheap laugh, the Celtics might spare a moment to look down from their ivory tower upon the dregs of the Atlantic: The Knicks and the Nets. Those two teams will take the court tonight in Brooklyn before a disappointed and sleepy national TV audience.

On one hand, this is professional sports. A man’s game. So there’s little room or reason for sympathy among competitors. Still, Danny Ainge, Brad Stevens and the rest of the Mighty Green will be hard-pressed not to feel for New York and Brooklyn as they duke it out at Barclays. Not too badly, of course. But the same way an investment banker might be overcome by a wave of compassion as he glances out the window of his Porsche and catches two drunken hobos wrestling in an alley over the last can of beans.

After all, rebuilding isn’t easy. It’s never fun. It’s an inevitable aspect of NBA life, and one that the Celtics know all too well. They’ve been there. They understand what it’s like to enter a season with zero expectations, knowing that you’re destined for the bottom of the barrel and that, even worse, a large portion of your fan base is rooting for you to hit it hard. But just because Boston has since risen from the ashes and regained their division stranglehold doesn’t mean that the harsh memory of life in the slums has faded. It’s still there. It still drives them. In many ways, that rebuild feels like it happened yesterday.

But for the Knicks and Nets, that rebuild is now. They enter tonight’s battle with a combined record of 8-26. The same number of wins that Boston, the crown jewel of the Atlantic, has all on their own. If the season ended today, the Knicks would have the second most ping pong balls in the lottery behind the Bucks. The Nets would be in the running, too. They currently have the league’s fifth worst record.

Naturally, this has all led to varying degrees of speculation in NBA circles. As is very often the case when any team enters this stage of their basketball re-evolution, the word “tanking” has butted its ugly head into the discussion.

The awful trades. The misguided hirings. The reactionary firings. The dogmatic or just plain inept coaching. The collection of players who are past their prime or injury-plagued or vastly overpaid and sometimes a combination of the three. The alienating of players who don’t fit that depressing mold. From the outside, the Knicks/Nets model has always been so blatantly destined for this disaster. So, some have asked the question:

Are they trying to lose? Is this all part of some diabolical New York State of Mind?

I don’t typically like to editorialize in this space, but in this case I can’t resist. It’s offensive. The answer is no. I refuse to believe that New York and Brooklyn are tanking. What good is tanking when you’ve already traded away most of your draft picks?

The Nets only have two first rounders between now and 2018, and in both those drafts, another team has the option to swap picks if Brooklyn’s is better. The Knicks have only one first round pick over the next three years. Neither will be drafting this summer, as one of the best rookie crops in recent memory makes themselves available to the NBA.

Nope. No tanking. Just old fashioned rebuilding. An absence of championship aspirations. The knowledge that they must get back to the drawing board. The hope that they might some day re-join the ranks of legitimate contenders, and once again get mentioned in the same breath as current division leaders like the Heat, Pacers and Celtics, aka The Beasts of the East.

It’s not easy. It’s a long road to travel. But as the first place Boston Celtics can attest, once you get to the end, it’s all worth it.