The New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets looked very similar for most of the first half of the 2011-12 NBA season. Both teams were hit by the injury bug up and down their roster and were in a tailspin heading towards the lottery.
Then Linsanity hit and all of a sudden the Knicks looked a whole lot like a contender in the Eastern Conference. Despite ending the first half losing three of their final five (including one at home to the Nets), New York heads to the second half healthy and ready to make a run thanks in large part to the shot of life from point guard Jeremy Lin.
Like the Knicks, the Nets best player in the first half was running the show. Deron Williams, playing most nights as the only offensive weapon in head coach Avery Johnson's arsenal, was fantastic while finding a way to get New Jersey 10 wins. New Jersey is also a team starting to get healthy, including the return of center Brook Lopez from a broken foot.
Entering this short second half of the season, the Knicks are right in the thick of the playoff race, but the Nets are poised to finish up as the best "bad" team in the league thanks to Lopez and the rest of the walking wounded in New Jersey getting healthy.
Before we shine the spotlight on the final 31 games, we need to look back at the best and worst players for the Knicks and Nets in the first half.
SB Nation New York Top 5
1. Jeremy Lin, Knicks
The Knicks went from perhaps the NBA's biggest disappointment to the most talked about team in the league and a probably playoff side thanks to Jeremy Lin, who has become a worldwide sensation. Even though he's only been a prominent figure on the team for a month, the Knicks are 9-3 since Lin started getting serious minutes. He took a dead team and gave it life.
2. Deron Williams, Nets
Thanks to the non-stop injuries, Williams has been forced to play along side the least amount of talent in his career. All he has done is take on the burden of scorer and distributor for New Jersey, pouring in 22.2 points and handing out 8.2 assists per game. The point guard might not know how to handle having both Lopez and impressive rookie MarShon Brooks on the floor with him in the second half.
3. Tyson Chandler, Knicks
He's been everything that the Knicks could have expected and then some more. He's averaging nearly a double-double and is making 70% of his shots. Most impressively has been him overall impact on the Knicks' team defense. Yes, the Knicks finally have more than a few players who are good defenders, but Chandler makes all the difference by patrolling the paint. New York is fifth in the league in Defense Rating, allowing 99.6 points per 100 possessions.
4. Kris Humphries, Nets
This man deserves an award just for having to deal with dumb NBA fans. Humphries is booed at almost every stop along the way for... well, no one is really sure what for. Sure, his short-lived marriage to Kim Kardashian is worthy of the occasional sign or chant, but the non-stop booing is bizarre. All he has done to answer his critics in the stands every night is put together the best season of his life. Humphries is averaging 13.6 points and 10.5 rebounds, both career-highs.
5. Steve Novak, Knicks
There were a myriad of guys who could have been in this spot, namely Landry Fields, Iman Shumpert or Jared Jeffries. I'll give it to Novak because he's made himself an indispensable part of this team who simply needs to get minutes every night on a talented bunch. He's been a beneficiary of Lin's spectacular play, but Novak's clutch three point shooting has become a major asset for the Knicks. That fourth quarter show against the Mavericks a few weeks ago was wild.
SB Nation New York Bottom 5
1. Amar'e Stoudemire, Knicks
Stoudemire came into the season with lingering back and knee issues, and he lost his brother in a tragic car accident in early February, so the reasons are palpable, but he just doesn't look the same this year. Stoudemire's scoring hasn't been this low since his '02-'03 rookie season (not counting '05-'06 where he only played three games), and more concerning is his visible lack of explosiveness.His usually reliable mid-range jumpshot -- which should be a real weapon with Lin now running the show -- has been off all year. It was a short while ago that Stoudemire played like an MVP candidate for New York and played an unbelievable Game 1 against the Celtics in the playoffs last year. What happened?
2. Brook Lopez, Nets
A low-blow, I know. It's not right to hold a broken foot against a player, but it's impossible to look at how bad the Nets season has gone and think about how much different it would be if Lopez had been healthy. Not only would New Jersey be a playoff team, but the Orlando Magic would have been given plenty to see leading up to their decision to trade Dwight Howard.
3. Carmelo Anthony, Knicks
Don't let the fact that Anthony just started in the All-Star Game fool you. This has not been a good season so far for the Knicks' prized possession. He's shooting a career-worst 40% from the field and his points per game (21.4) is the third-lowest of his career, and he's down by nearly 5 full points from last season. The hard questions are starting to be asked, and despite Lin's surge, most people know the Knicks are Anthony's team. He will simply have to start playing better if the Knicks are going to make any sort of playoff run.
4. Shawne Williams, Nets
Remember when the Knicks and Nets were fighting for his services before the season began? Williams came into the season with an injury, which led to more injuries and now he is out for the season after surgery on his foot. He averaged 4.5 points in 25 games this season and is all but assured now to pick up his player-option for 2012-13.
5. Johan Petro, Nets
Take our backup center... please! There is no bigger disappointment in the area than Petro. With Lopez out for most of the season, he had a chance to prove he was worth the confidence GM Billy King showed in him last year with a long-term contract. Instead of stepping up, Petro has turned dropping perfect passes into an art form.