Yes, July 1 is still more than five months away. Hell, we haven't even hit the All-Star break yet. But it's never too early to start thinking about free agency. Here in New York City, the Mecca of Basketball (that's right), this summer is crucial for the local teams.
This year projects to have arguably the best NBA free agent class ever with players like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson all -- in one way or another -- able to hit the open market. With hundreds of other players available this offseason and a league salary cap set to rise to $109 million for the 2019-20 season, even in the dead of winter all eyes are on summer '19.
New York's teams are expected to be big players in free agency, with both the Knicks and Nets possessing ample salary cap space and the ambition to exponentially improve. But which NYC franchise has the advantage when it comes to attracting the best talent? Quintessential New York or the "Coolest City in America?" (At least according to GQ, never mind that Brooklyn is actually a borough). Do players want to restore a storied franchise or be the face of a new movement? Midtown steakhouse or Smorgasburg?
Let's take a look at some of the major factors that will either attract or deter free agents and, thus, determine the future of hoops in the Big Apple.
OWNERSHIP AND FRONT OFFICE
For better or worse, the ownership group and front office can set the culture for the entire organization. We've seen examples throughout the NBA of what good, stable ownership and front office management looks like (the San Antonio Spurs). We've also seen what dysfunctional ownership and poor management looks like (the Los Angeles Clippers during the Donald Sterling era). Having the right people in place at the top creates an environment where success is possible. It matters, and players around the league talk.
To say Knicks ownership and management has been dysfunctional is an understatement (Charles Oakley situation, anyone?). Since James Dolan assumed control of the Knicks in 1999, the team has experienced five winning seasons. That's awful. The general manager and president roles have been a revolving door, with eight different executives holding various titles over that same time period. That screams instability.
Current team president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry are the new "brain trust" Dolan has "empowered" to turn the franchise around. It's too early to fully evaluate them, but they hired a good coach (David Fizdale) and seemingly identified solid talent in the 2018 draft (Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson). We will wait and see what they do at the trade deadline.
For what it's worth, Dolan will likely remain the team's owner for the foreseeable future, unless that $5 billion deal he mentioned in an interview with ESPN comes along. That's some form of stability.
The Nets ownership structure is a bit more complex and unclear. Mikhail Prokhorov -- worth an estimated $10.1 billion, according to Forbes -- is the controlling owner with a 51 percent stake in the franchise, including ownership of the team's arena, Barclays Center. Joseph Tsai (net worth about $9 billion) is the minority owner controlling the remaining 49 percent, but he has the option to buy enough shares to assume total control in 2021.
Prokhorov wanted to make a splash when he first acquired the franchise and "urged" then-GM Billy King to trade for star power. Brooklyn acquired Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from Boston in 2013, sending back its first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018.
Those picks turned into James Young, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. This is definitely a black mark on Prokhorov, and the team has spent the last five years trying to dig out of that mess.
But, even after what some consider the worst trade in NBA history, there is hope.
The Nets now appear committed to building a true contending franchise. When Prokhorov and his team hired Sean Marks as their general manager in 2016 from the vaunted Spurs organization, it showed their interest in creating a proper culture, and adding someone from a winning organization was smart.
Marks signed a four-year contract when he was brought on, so this summer will be a big indicator whether or not he can take great leaps to go along with his current steady progress.
Both owners have shown a willingness to spend money, but until more recently, Dolan was known for reportedly meddling in the team's affairs. Brooklyn's majority owner seems more willing to bring in the right basketball people and let them do their job, seemingly having learned from the ill-fated trade that once mortgaged away the Nets' future.
A common misconception is that NBA players don't like coaching or don't respect coaches. There are approximately 450 players in the NBA, so you have to be exceptional to make this league. Players want coaches to be exceptional as well.
In David Fizdale, the Knicks have a coach who is generally well respected by players and was co-signed by LeBron James. When Fizdale was hired in May, James told the Cleveland Plain Dealer, "I think he's a good coach, a good communicator. He's never going to shy away from whatever he feels is right."
Players also value honesty: They want to be told when they're not doing what is needed and how they can perform better. Fizdale talked about how he was able to coach James, saying, "Respect through telling the truth to each other, being honest, telling each other what we don't want to hear. Being there for each other when we hit low moments."
Even Fizdale's former player in Memphis, Marc Gasol -- who was largely responsible for Fizdale's firing -- had good things to say about him prior to a Knicks-Grizzlies game earlier this season.
"I'm a better player because of David; I can say that 100 percent," Gasol said. "Even though last year was really tough for everyone, I'm a better player this year than I was last year and a lot had to do with him."
Although lately, Enes Kanter seems less than pleased with how his playing time (or lack thereof) has been handled.
The Knicks are 10-36 entering Friday night's game at Barclays Center and playing without their best player, Kristaps Porzingis. It's not particularly fair to grade Fizdale when the team is not trying to win, as they are clearly in rebuild mode. But Fizdale does have the team playing hard while keeping things competitive on most nights.
Their problem is the roster is devoid of the experienced top-end talent necessary to compete at a high level.
Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson has a similar issue to Fizdale, although Brooklyn's roster is not as poor as the one in Manhattan. The Nets are also without their best player, Caris LeVert, but they do have a healthy mix of young players with upside and veterans who know how to play.
Even though they've been an sub-.500 club during much of Atkinson's first two-plus seasons, they're currently 26-23, in sixth place in the East, and turning into one of the NBA's better stories.
The NBA's golden boy of coaching, Brad Stevens, sung Atkinson's praises before a recent game.
"We know how good they are. We know how well-coached they are," he said. "I said last week I don't see how they don't make the playoffs. They're an excellent offensive team. I think they have a lot of versatility defensively. I think they're superbly coached and they all know what they do and they do it every single night."
Atkinson cut his teeth as a player-development coach, and you can see it in the work he's done with Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and D'Angelo Russell. His offensive system borrows from Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle and Terry Stotts; some of the best in the business.
Again, it's hard to grade accurately as Atkinson has an advantage over Fizdale since he's been with his franchise longer, but both coaches have their teams competing hard, despite the roster limitations.
Advantage: Nets (slightly)
HOME ARENA AND FANS
Don't get it mixed up - atmosphere and fans matter.
The Knicks have the World's Most Famous Arena that's hosted some of the greatest events in history, from "The Fight of the Century" to WrestleMania. Everything about Madison Square Garden says NYC: The bright lights, Seventh Avenue, Broadway.
Despite the team's record, Knicks games are a headline event with an A-list celebrity row that includes the likes of Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Dustin Hoffman and John McEnroe. But you could wind up seeing any star like Michael B. Jordan, Priyanka Chopra, and Sophie Turner, just to name a few.
The non-celebrity Knicks fans provide the Garden with a raucous atmosphere and, as the more storied franchise, they have more generational fans. They are also the more likely of the two franchises to have more bandwagoners once they start winning. Poor product or good product, the Garden is always a tough ticket and they have a group of loyal supporters.
Barclays Center is the newer arena, with a theatre-like atmosphere. The building does not have the history of MSG, but has slowly been building its own. Former minority owner Jay-Z and Beyonce used to grace Barclays with their presence, but now Nets celebrity row includes the likes of Steve Madden, Angela Yee, and DJ Envy. Brooklyn locals like Fabolous and Rosie Perez are often in attendance.
The Nets are a "newer" franchise, having joined the league as part of the ABA/NBA merger. Their NBA history, save the two NBA Finals runs with Jason Kidd, is not decorated with success and they have less of a New York tie (though the ABA franchise dates back to Long Island and won two titles with some guy named Julius Erving).
Still, the ABA days, time spent in the swamplands of New Jersey, and recent ineptitude have stunted the growth of their fan base.
But this one is no contest. The Garden is the Garden. They don't call it the World's Most Famous Arena for nothing.
CAP SPACE AND CURRENT ROSTERS
Neither franchise has been very successful on the court as of late, both reeling from the mistakes of general managers' past. However, there is light at the end of their proverbial dark tunnels.
The Knicks have made little secret they hope to land Kevin Durant and pair him with Porzingis as the foundation of a new contender. They waived Joakim Noah and can clear space for one max player in 2019. The question is, will they be able to clear space for two max players?
That will be more challenging and they would need to find takers for both Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee without taking much salary back in return, whom they've reportedly made available ahead of the trade deadline.
But allow yourself to dream for a moment: KD, KP, Kevin Knox, and their 2019 draft pick (you know who) sounds pretty good.
The Nets had cap space for two max slots in 2019 before they decided to extend Spencer Dinwiddie, which essentially kept an All-Star level player on their roster. They still have space for a single max player and Sean Marks could clear a lot more room by not making qualifying offers to D'Angelo Russell ($21.1 million cap hold) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson ($7.4 million cap hold).
With Dinwiddie, promising big man Jarrett Allen, rookie sensation Rodions Kurucs, and pre-injury Most Improved Player candidate Caris LeVert (No. 50 on the Simmons' trade value list) as a core, that roster is appealing.
Both squads have young talent and most would argue that KP is better than LeVert, but nothing is guaranteed after an injury with someone Porzingis' size. Knox looks like he could grow into something special, but as it stands right now, the talent tilts more in the Nets' favor.
The 2019 draft class doesn't appear to be very deep, but there is a lot of hype around the top with Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, Jarrett Culver, Ja Morant, and Bol Bol (though he's out the rest of the season with a foot injury).
The Knicks seem to be headed for the lottery, and if they pick in the Top 3 or 5, they could be adding a future All-Star. The Knicks' recent draft history -- despite the doom and gloom of many fans -- has actually been pretty good. They may have whiffed on Frank Ntilikina, but Porzingis, Knox, Allonzo Trier and Mitchell Robinson have all shown promise.
The Nets have their own first-round pick for the first time in years, but it looks like they are going to hover around a lower playoff seed all year and find themselves outside of the Draft Lottery. But Sean Marks and his scouting and player development staff found LeVert, Dinwiddie, Allen and Kurucs all late in the first or second rounds. They don't seem bothered where they pick.
The draft has some real gems near the top, and the Knicks look likely to be picking in the top 4.
The Nets come up winners in three of five categories, and while they're not running away with this head-to-head, they hold advantages in the categories that matter. Brooklyn looks to have the better front office, slightly better coaching, and a better roster to build upon.
Yes, the Knicks are the storied franchise and have the pedigree, but the Nets are built to win right now.
If you're a big-time free agent and you could make the same money with either franchise -- wouldn't winning trump all?