The Knicks and Lakers are, in many ways, very similar franchises.
Both play in the two largest markets the NBA offers, New York and Los Angeles, both have plenty of championship pedigree (16 for the Lakers, two for the Knicks, but for some reason the Knicks get mentioned in the same breath as the Lakers as a “legendary franchise” so let’s just go with that), and over the past few years both teams have sucked.
I know, harsh right? Have they truly sucked? How is that even possible for teams boasting the talents of future Hall of Famers Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant?
Well, for the Knicks, it’s been over a decade of suck. Starting from Patrick Ewing’s departure in 2000, New York has missed the playoffs ten out of the fifteen seasons and fell into the reputation of simply being a poorly run organization. From the Isiah Thomas sexual harassment case to the often outlandish contracts given to aging and injured stars, the Knicks have been bordering on embarrassing for far too long, with there only being a small handful of exceptions.
Last season was the ultimate capping off to the fifteen year run of being awful, as the Knicks posted a franchise-worst 17 wins. Shockingly, a starting line up that often consisted of stars like Lance Thomas and Lou Amundson due to Carmelo Anthony’s mid-season knee surgery didn’t work out in the Mecca!
The Lakers, meanwhile, have had at least some recent success. They won three consecutive titles from 2000-2002 with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, then added two more in 2009 and 2010 with Kobe and Pau Gasol manning the ship. Soon after those last two titles, however, things have began to go steeply downhill for LA.
Long time head coach Phil Jackson retired after the 2010-2011 season, long time cornerstones Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol have moved on, and star acquisitions like Dwight Howard and Steve Nash simply didn’t work out. Oh, and that Kobe Bryant fella somehow dragged $32 million a year out of the franchise, deeply hurting their chances of adding any other stars to a roster that, with Bryant’s not-so-gracefully aging process, has been amongst the worst in the league over the last few seasons.
Much like the Knicks, the Lakers posted their worst season in franchise history last season, winning only 21 games.
It’s been a steep decline for both of these teams and both entered this past offseason with the same goal: Rebuild.
The Knicks went to work adding veteran free agents Robin Lopez and Arron Afflalo as well as a host of young, but talented front court presences in the forms of Kevin Seraphin and Kyle O’Quinn. They also managed to cash in with the 4th overall pick in the draft after their horrendous season, adding Latvian 7-Footer Kristaps Porzingis and Jerian Grant in the first round.
The Lakers, meanwhile, would sign Brandon Bass, Anthony Brown, and Lou Williams in free agency and traded for veteran big man Roy Hibbert. Much like the Knicks, LA was granted a top draft pick and surprised many when they took Ohio State guard D’Angelo Russell over Duke standout Jahlil Okafor.
After what appeared to be solid offseason for both teams, with each having a flurry of transactions, both New York and Los Angeles fans finally felt a reason to feel good about their teams heading into the 2015-2016 season. Sure, Porzingis was a relative unknown and Kobe is only getting older, but the unknown of both teams was more than enough for a cloud of optimism to cover both teams entering opening night last week.
Well, basketball has now officially been played, and for one team’s fans, their optimism may just pay off, while for the others it may still be a while until they reach pay dirt.
The Knicks, while sitting at just .500 after four games, have come out and shocked many with their play. Their offense ranked third in the league entering their game with the Spurs on Monday night, Porzingis is putting up numbers comparable to Patrick Ewing and far more aggressive than anyone could have expected (he’s averaged 10.5 shots per game, up from the 8.3 FGA per game he put up last year in EuroLeague ball), and they’ve even played the perennial championship-candidate San Antonio Spurs tough.
Yes, it’s still early, and we’re only four games into an 82-game campaign, but there are various facts that point to this not just being a flash-in-the-pan for the Knicks. Superstar Carmelo Anthony has shot just 37%, a number that will only grow as he continues to get back into game shape after last season’s knee surgery. Oh, and they may not even be playing their best starting lineup yet either.
This is still a team that has yet to play offseason acquisition Arron Afflalo at shooting guard, instead deferring to Sasha Vujecic. Plus, starting point guard Jose Calderon has shot an icy 27% with just 1.8 assists per game, numbers that likely point to a promotion for rookie Jerian Grant, who has been a lightning rod off the bench with his 54% shooting and 3.8 assists per.
They haven’t been perfect by any means, losing to arguably their two best opponents thus far in the Hawks and Spurs, but a valiant performance against San Antonio combined with two wins against the Bucks and Wizards point to a possible playoff birth for the Knicks out East.
The Lakers, meanwhile, are a different story.
After four games, Los Angeles is still winless and already looking like they are headed towards tanking for Ben Simmons in the 2016 draft. They are the seventh worst shooting team in the league (40.4%) despite hauling up the most 3PA (32.3 per game) in the league. Essentially, this is a bad shooting team that is shooting a whole bunch, which is an excellent formula to somehow be even worse than last year.
Oh, and their defense, which would supposedly be anchored by the addition of Roy Hibbert, is allowing opponents to score a league high 117 points per game on 48.6% shooting.
Despite the solid play from Julius Randle, who played in only one game during his rookie campaign last season yet is still averaging 14 PPG and 8.3 RPG, and Jordan Clarkson (18.3 PPG, 54% FGM), the Lakers have been consistently dragged down by the play of Kobe Bryant, their supposed star. Kobe has shot a putrid 32%, yet still insists on leading the Lakers in FGA’s, averaging 15.5 shots a game.
So why has the Knicks’ rebuilding process seemingly worked, while the Lakers has somehow only put themselves in a worse situation?
Well, for one, the Knicks had a far younger star player to build around. Carmelo Anthony is certainly not a youthful star at this point in his career at 31 years of age, but he’s still relatively close to his peak performance despite a slow start. Kobe, meanwhile, is entering his 20th year in the league, a number unprecedented for a guard. It’s shown in his legs, with his 3-point percentage dropping down to 20% as this suddenly old Bryant simply can’t create his own shots any more.
Plus, the Knicks seem to just fit together better, with New York averaging 3 more assists per game than their Los Angeles counterparts. No, Jose Calderon may not be an elite point guard, but his ability to push the ball around along with the high flying passing ability of back ups Langston Galloway and Jerian Grant have made the New York offense into one of the most free flowing and fun units in basketball, with their overall Pace up to 98.7 this season (up from 91 last year).
The Lakers have struggled to adapt to the changing NBA landscape. While they lead the league in 3PA, coach Byron Scott has gone on record as saying that he’s opposed to focusing his offense on the deep ball.
Hell, maybe the coaches of these two teams are the problems.
Derek Fisher has already made a solid leap in his second year as a head coach, holding onto leads in the second half against the Bucks and Wizards, while nearly fighting all the way from a 14-point deficit against the Spurs. Scott has at points seemed lost for the Lakers this year though, not playing D’Angelo Russell at all in the fourth quarter in the team’s loss to the Nuggets, while saying that he has no issue with Kobe’s shot selection (32 of Bryant’s 62 total shots have come with a defender within three feet). Oh, and he calls his team soft every possible chance he gets, which is sure to motivate a team to glory. Nothing like being told you’re too soft 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, while simultaneously being blown out by every opponent!
It may be years until we can definitively say who had the more successful rebuild between the Knicks and Lakers. Los Angeles could score huge in the lottery this offseason with Ben Simmons or another possible star, while New York’s hot start could fall apart later in the season and put them in just-missed-the-playoffs hell. But for now, it’s become clear that this year, there’s a winner between the two, and that winner is the New York Knicks.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball-Reference.com and ShotAnalytics.com
Sean Linhares is a Sports Communication major at West Virginia University. He is originally from Pine Bush, New York, but don’t look that up because you might not like him anymore (it wasn’t him, we checked). You can follow him on Twitter @LINhares_Sanity