This summer was the New Jersey Nets' power move.
It's hard to remove the stench of being the second-most loved city in an area. Remember 2006, when the Clippers advanced farther than the Lakers in the playoffs? Neither does anybody in Los Angeles. The Chicago White Sox have won more World Series in this decade than the Chicago Cubs have in over 100 years, but still seem like the Second City's second team. I went to Cuba this past March, and one of Havana's two baseball teams was in the Cuban National Series, and you could tell everybody in the city was excited about it. The other finished in last place in their division. That teams name? Los Metropolitanos. (I couldn't receive confirmation that this was intentionally based on New Yorks' two baseball teams, but the evidence is pretty strong.)
But this summer, the Nets decided they'd had enough of being second-best. With an upcoming move to Brooklyn, their power play needed to come now to have a chance at deseating the New York Knicks as the toast of the town. They cleared cap room for LeBron James and whoever he felt like playing with. They put up that billboard across from Madison Square Garden with that message: "The Blueprint for Greatness". Hell, at the beginning of this summer, I wrote a piece about how I thought LeBron should come to New Jersey. And I'm a Knicks fan.
About six weeks later, that billboard is gone, as is the team's apparent claim to the town's heart. With the summer's superheated stove cooled down for the most part, let's look at what each team was able to swing in free agency.
Knicks: signed Amare Stoudemire (two years, $99 million) Raymond Felton (two years, $14 million) Timofey Mozgov (three years, $9 million), traded for Kelenna Azubuike, Anthony Randolph, and Ronny Turiaf, drafted Andy Rautins, Jerome Jordan, and Landry Fields
Nets: signed Travis Outlaw (five years, $35 million), Jordan Farmar (three years, $12 million), Anthony Morrow (three years, $12 million), and Johan Petro (three years, $10 million), drafted Derrick Favors, Damion James, Brian Zoubek and Ben Uzoh.
The Nets didn't get their guy. That's okay. The Knicks tried to get LeBron James and failed, too.
The best player the Nets acquired was Derrick Favors. And they got him because they had the third pick in the draft. Their free agency was a complete whiff: they didn't get anybody spectacular, and they probably paid too much for three of the guys they did get.
What could they have done, in their position? Sadly, nothing. They got beaten by the player-driven nature of this past offseason that put power in the hands of the guys about to sign the contracts, not GM's. Players decided they didn't want to play for New York's second team - which killed New Jersey's dream of someday becoming the city's first team.
On the other hand, the Knicks were able to get one of the bigger free agents on the market. That in itself was good, but they also upgraded at point guard by turning Chris Duhon into Raymond Felton, and instead of letting David Lee go for nothing, got three solid players in Azubuike, Randolph, and Turiaf in return. The Knicks were able to attract Stoudemire because... well, because they're the Knicks. People want to play for the Knicks. Especially the world's best quasi-Jewish power forward. And now, not only are they the most popular team in town, they also have a roster that looks like it should make the 2011 Playoffs, ending a seven-year drought.
It's hard, but those second fiddle teams can have success. Like I said, the White Sox won in 2005. The Clippers had their fun in the California sun. And hell, the Nets made it to the NBA Finals twice this decade while the Knicks wasted ten years throwing money at people like Jared Jeffries and Eddy Curry.
But they have to remember this one thing: things have their order. If the Nets had accepted their role in New York's hierarchy and gone after some mid-range free agents - Carlos Boozer and David Lee showed interest in the Nets, but they didn't pursue as hard as they could have, nor did they go hard after Amare or Joe Johnson.
To quote a famed traditional West Baltimore saying, the Nets came at the King. In two ways: they tried to sign LeBron James, and in doing so, tried to dethrone the Knicks on top of New York's basketball kingdom.
If you come at the king, you best not miss. And the Nets missed.
The Knicks stay the Knicks.