Will Nets win over New York fans?

BY Sam Gardner • July 18, 2012

In an interview with New York magazine earlier this month, Brooklyn-born movie director and Knicks superfan Spike Lee said he anticipated “war” when his beloved team and the new-look Brooklyn Nets square off this fall.

NBA Commissioner David Stern, a New York City native himself, remarked at the NBA Draft Lottery that he was “hoping for some sparks” when the Nets and Knicks meet — with the East River, not the Hudson, now separating the teams after the Nets' move from New Jersey.

Nets coach Avery Johnson, in a bit of showmanship on his part, flat-out overlooked the giant, orange-and-blue elephant in the room, saying his team’s goal in its first season at Brooklyn's brand-new Barclays Center will be to win an NBA title, not a “local championship.”

As early as 2010, the Nets began dialing up the trash talk, tweaking the Knicks with a massive billboard — featuring Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, minority owner Jay-Z and the slogan “the blueprint for greatness” — on the side of a building right outside Madison Square Garden.

On the court, trash talk has begun among the players, too. Newly arrived Nets guard Joe Johnson already has proclaimed his Brooklyn squad “definitely” the best team in the city, only to have Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony respond that his Knicks will “be ready for the challenge” when it comes.

The season is still three months out, but seemingly everyone with a hand or even a passing interest in the matchup is champing at the bit for the next chapter of this Gotham rivalry to get started.

The Knicks and their fans are tired of the hype, while the Nets are through being overlooked in favor of their big brother in Midtown. New York and Brooklyn haven’t even played yet, but they already dislike each other. And all I can say is it’s about time.

Because before now, the Nets-Knicks rivalry had always been a bit of a one-sided affair, even if only in the hearts and Nielsen boxes of fans.

See, New York has always been the banner franchise in these parts, while the Nets, regardless of their success — they’ve reached two NBA Finals since the Knicks’ last championship appearance — have always lingered in the background, hoping to get noticed and rarely succeeding.

But now, in completing their move from gritty Newark to the hip heart of Brooklyn, they’ve put themselves in the spotlight while entrenching themselves in their new surroundings. Once a laughingstock, the Nets have talked a big game and dedicated themselves to making sure they don’t blow it when everyone is finally watching — and they’ve put their money where their mouth is.

Since the moratorium on player signings was lifted last week, Brooklyn has added nine contracts with a combined value of more than $330 million to the payroll (or pocket change for the multi-billionaire Prokhorov).

They’ve got arguably the best backcourt in the NBA with Deron Williams — who spurned Dallas to be part of the movement in Brooklyn — and the All-Star isolation extraordinaire Johnson, along with a slashing, All-Star small forward in Gerald Wallace.

Their frontcourt isn’t too shabby either, with 20-point per game scorer Brook Lopez and a double-double machine in Kris Humphries, who can be a fine basketball player when he’s not making a fool of himself on TV, doing the heavy lifting. Nor is the bench, which features C.J. Watson, MarShon Brooks, Reggie Evans, Jerry Stackhouse and Mirza Teletovic.

Brooklyn missed out on Orlando’s superstar center Dwight Howard — or, rather, Howard missed on Brooklyn — and that may be what keeps the Nets from being a bona fide championship contender. But even without Howard, they’re good and they’re interesting, which is more than can be said for any Nets team for the past decade.

The Knicks, on the other hand, still are the Knicks, and in this city that will always count for something.

Sure, they lost out on Steve Nash to Los Angeles and let Jeremy Lin and Landry Fields sign lucrative deals with Houston and Toronto, respectively. But as the most distinguished team in the country’s biggest market — and one of the two most profitable clubs in basketball — New York still doesn’t have to do much to get anyone’s attention.

Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler still are the crux of the operation at MSG, and will dictate the direction for the Knicks’ season. Much of their success will come down to the play of the Olympian Anthony, but as we saw late last season, he’s still — for all his frustrating selfishness with the ball — a heck of a basketball player.

Sharpshooter Steve Novak is back, as is the enigmatic J.R. Smith, along with a blast from the past in Raymond Felton. The Knicks also ventured to the Upper West Side and nabbed Jason Kidd, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas from the dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History to impart their leadership upon a team in need of some veteran savvy.

Does that make them better than the Nets? It’s tough to say, as both teams are strongest where the other is most vulnerable. New York, it would seem, has the chemistry edge, though it's hardly a well-oiled machine. And Brooklyn has youth on its side, not to mention a giant chip on its shoulder.

But the beautiful and exciting part about this rivalry is that, when it’s all said and done, neither team has a realistic shot at a championship anyway, so the Knicks' and Nets’ next best option is to defend their pride.

The Knicks and Nets aren’t competing against the rest of the league; they’re competing against each other, with the bragging rights of the basketball Mecca at stake. And that we finally care at all is a watershed moment in itself.

It’s Jay-Z vs. Spike Lee. Atlantic Terminal vs. Penn Station. Prospect Park vs. Central Park. Brooklyn vs. Manhattan. Like Spike said, this is war. And this is how it’s supposed to be.

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or e-mail him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.

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