The Knicks’ talented yet inexperienced lineup has achieved a 20-24 record thus far. The good vibes from their encouraging start were punctured by a stretch in which the team lost 10 of 13 games, thanks in part to losing Tim Hardaway Jr. for six weeks with a left leg injury. Sunday, they let a 19-point lead slip away in an eventual overtime loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Monday, they allowed 39 third-quarter points to the Nets, nearly letting another game slip away.
The victory over the Nets provided something of a lift. It was also the beginning of seven-game road trip — though fans at Barclays were chanting in favor of the visitors by the game’s end — that could help decide how this season ultimately ends for the Knicks. A trip to Memphis Wednesday, followed by five games out West will prove far trickier.
“It’s going to be huge,” Porzingis said of the coming stretch. “It’s going to show us where we are right now. We’ve been so close in so many games on the road that we’re right there. All we need is to stick together, finish the games better, and I’m sure the wins will come.”
The Knicks have not posted a winning record since the 2012-13 season, and the Nets’ most recent one came the season after. They are both mired in long, occasionally painful rebuilds. Two stargazing organizations have one legitimate star between them — Porzingis. The Knicks are hoping that by finally keeping their first-round picks they can find a strong complement for Porzingis one of these years. The Nets have a bleaker outlook; they are bereft of picks after a disastrous 2013 trade with the Celtics and have turned to trading for depressed assets that they hope to revitalize.
The Knicks remain pegged in the present, hoping to avoid a second-straight midseason collapse and nab a playoff spot. The Nets are still chasing the future. But after consecutive seasons with the worst and third-worst records in the N.B.A., the Nets are, at least, no longer laughable.
Though 16-28 is still far from enviable, there are signs of progress under General Manager Sean Marks. Spencer Dinwiddie has been a solid presence since he was signed from the N.B.A.’s developmental league last season, averaging more than 13 points and six assists. D’Angelo Russell, the former No. 2 overall pick, could soon return from the arthroscopic left knee surgery he underwent in November. They are just now integrating Jahlil Okafor, drafted one spot behind Russell in the same draft, after acquiring him from Philadelphia last month.
Okafor played only seven minutes Monday, but LeVert scored 20 points off the bench and DeMarre Carroll, who arrived from Toronto this summer in a deal that included a first- and second-round draft pick, had 22 points and eight rebounds.
The game swayed back and forth, and at times the potential of an exciting rivalry flashed across the court. Porzingis will likely be an All-Star this year. Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall draft pick last summer, has shown talent as a defender and facilitator, giving the Knicks hope that they have a point guard of the future.
Across the East River, Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson has mitigated a dearth of talent by giving the Nets structure and has turned them into a hardscrabble team worth watching. They are already five wins away from surpassing last year’s total.
Still, Atkinson knows how much better these games would be if the teams were in stronger positions and how hampered the rivalry is until they are.
“I think we’re both desperate to get there,” Atkinson said. “We’re climbing, we’re clawing. We understand the market. We understand how important it is to the fans. It’s not lost in translation. We understand it and it would be great one day if we were playing a playoff game like the Subway Series they have in baseball or Giants-Jets. It’s special. I hope we get it. I really wish that. I’m a real New York fan. Both teams being good would be good for the city.”