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The Inbounds: The new Brooklyn Empire and the Crown of Relevance

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Welcome to The Inbounds, touching on a big idea of the day. It could be news, it could be history, it could be a tangent, it could be love. OK, it’s probably not love. Enjoy.

Sometime last Wednesday, after yet another round on Twitter battling the Brooklyn faithful (and they are a faithful lot for a franchise that hasn’t played a single minute in its current city) about Brook Lopez and his max contract, about the efforts to remake the team and the failed attempt at obtaining Dwight Howard, I came to a pretty startling conclusion. The Nets are perfect for sports and the people who love them. There are more compelling stories in the NBA. LeBron James and his ongoing battle to save his basketball soul. Kobe Bryant and his continuing obsession with matching Jordan. The Thunder and the hope of tomorrow vs. the empty optimism of a future which may never come.

But the Nets? They are perfect for everything we love about the NBA and about sports. Because they will provide endless hours for us to develop and express opinions about a dozen different things.

They’re a superstar team without superstars. Deron Williams is a top-five point guard in this league who will flirt nightly with the tag of best-to-second-best. But Joe Johnson? Gerald Wallace? Brook Lopez? You have to love basketball to know these names. Yet if you do, you understand how good they really are. Johnson’s contract alone is enough for hours of debate. No one can argue he’s worth the money but if you factor in the fact that the Nets don’t really care how much he costs, at some point once you’re over the luxury tax line it’s irrelevant how much more he costs. And he’s an underrated defender who can guard 1’s, 2’s and 3’s in this league, defend in the post and on the perimeter, can body and bang and contain on the fly. He can also stop his own offense dead in its tracks with his insistence on isolation possessions that involve a lot of dribbling, a lot of contested jumpers, and not a lot of points. He’ll have nights where he lights up the opponent and nights where his own team goes down in the crossfire. It’s perfect for starting a screaming match between any two people.

Gerald Wallace is an underground icon, the guy named “Crash” whose stat-stuffing exploits were best illustrated in the basketball must-read “FreeDarko Presents: The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac.”  He’s another level, and yet on the level which you can observe with the eye, he seems almost invisible. He’s the hidden play, the quiet moment, master of the “little things which help win games.” And Brook Lopez is the center who can score 30 points but can’t grab eight rebounds. Every accomplishment can be marred with criticism, every criticism can be marred with praise. It’s all there.

And they enter a new arena in the world’s most famous city, ready to strike up a rivalry with the most iconic team on the East Coast (apologies to the greater Boston Celtics, it’s more the Knicks’ failures and your quiet success that trumpet them so loudly). Let’s not be confused on this point. This rivalry will be real from the start.  The Knicks will play big brother and play it off, but they’re not good enough to dismiss the Nets, and the Nets are fighting to establish themselves as legitimate in the boroughs. They even match up well, with no one able to defend Deron Williams, but Williams’ mentor Jason Kidd on the other sideline, the Knicks with defensive ace Iman Shumpert (when he returns from injury) to take on Johnson and the Nets with Wallace to throw at Carmelo Anthony. The Nets have no one to defend Amar’e Stoudemire, but Stoudemire often gets in his own way with injury and defensive issues. The high scoring, no rebound, poor defense center who can score from anywhere on anyone versus the consummate defensive force at the rim. Throw in some young talent and veteran difference makers and you have everything you need. All four matchups next season will be must-watch, even as both teams could be fully embroiled in turmoil and in full disintegration at any point, only to rise from the ashes. God help us if we get a Nets/Knicks-Knicks/Nets 4-5 matchup in the East.

There are questions about how the Nets went about clearing out the populace for the Barclays Center, questions about Dolan’s price gouging, questions about Billy King’s decision making, about how CAA runs the Knicks, are the Nets a real superstar team, is Carmelo Anthony a player you can win with. It’s a whole Baz Luhrmann flick on hardwood.

The Nets will be the best thing anything in sports can be, divisive. You’ll think they don’t get enough credit for how good they are or that they are total frauds masquerading as a Finals contender. Is Brook Lopez a great scorer or a poor rebounder? What happens in three years when the salaries are out of control? What about Dwight Howard?

What about Dwight Howard?

The Nets are going to be a great team next year, even without the big guy. Johnson and Williams will make for a 1-2 pick and roll that’s going to just kill opponents, and with Wallace crashing the weakside and Lopez as the outlet, they’re going to put up points. They have this new color scheme which is as provocative as it is vintage, recalling the styles of the 40’s barnstorming teams and yet reminiscent of the style of minority owner Jay-Z.

The owner is a billionaire Russian who ran for President in Russia and said he’d beat up Mark Cuban in a kickboxing match, for crying out loud. This story has everything.

So while Nets fans try and shoehorn their team into the title contenders conversation and the rest of us try and explain just how limited their options are going to be in three years and how Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson are not worth the money, the NBA and the Nets win.

You want to know the biggest reason why Billy King won the offseason, why the Nets get an A for their summer?

The Nets, more so than even during their stretch of Finals contention, are relevant. They matter. They aren’t dominant enough for us to just accept, they aren’t mediocre enough for us to ignore. They’re just a really good basketball team looking to rewrite history.

This is going to be fun.

Report: Knicks grumbling about Jeff Hornacek’s lineups and rotations

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 17: Head coach Jeff Hornacek of the New York Knicks watches as his team plays the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center on December 17, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that , by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
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Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek has seemingly steered clear of the Phil Jackson-Carmelo Anthony feud. Hornacek has even avoided Jackson, one of the greatest coaches of all time, overly interfering.

But Hornacek hasn’t sidestepped every fissure in New York.

Veteran Knicks are reportedly frustrated with the defensive scheme, though some of that resentment could be pinned on assistant coach Kurt Rambis. Derrick Rose has reportedly been increasingly frustrated with Hornacek. And apparently he’s not the only one.

Ian Begley of ESPN:

Privately, players have been grumbling about lineups and rotations during the recent losing skid, according to sources. Brandon Jennings hinted at this after Monday’s loss when he spoke with frustration about the inconsistent nature of the Knicks’ recent lineups.

“Every day is something new. So just got to be ready I guess. You never know when you’re going to play,” he said.

Jennings was asked if the inconsistent rotations make things difficult for players.

“Yeah, when you come in here you don’t really know what’s going to happen, so it’s kind of no consistency and it’s really tough right now,” he said. “Right now, you come in here you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m struggling. It’s difficult for me, because I don’t really know what’s going on. Just take it one day at a time.”

Jennings isn’t the only player expressing dissatisfaction beyond anonymous leaks.

According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, Rose and Hornacek yelled at each other after Rose – who called on Hornacek to coach defense harder – got beat by Dennis Schroder on this play:

Berman reports Kyle O'Quinn also glared at Hornacek after being subbed out during the Knicks’ loss to the Hawks.

After the game, Courtney Lee – whom Hornacek removed the starting lineup – posted and deleted photos of Dumb & Dumber on Instagram. Lee then followed with this caption:

I posted a pic of dumb n dumber cuz that was my mood, no jab at no1. It’s dumb that we have a talented team and we’re in position to win games n keep losing by 1 possession. We’ll figure it out collectively as a team but that was my mood after the game. Has nothing to with any change, rotation, system, players, coaches, so let that be clear.

Are we reading too much into vague social media postings and distant body language? That is a real risk.

But Hornacek still appears to have issues with these Knicks. The debate should be a matter of the depth of the problems, not whether they exist.

This is what happens when teams lose 11 of 13. Players get frustrated and grumble.

The coach also often adjusts the rotation, which Hornacek has done, including starting Ron Baker. Jennings and co. haven’t earned stability in their roles. When they had that, they were losing.

The question now: Can Hornacek reclaim the players’ trust, which would help the team break its skid? Or does the griping – and, partially as a result, the losing – continue in a season-destroying snowball?

PBT Extra: Carmelo Anthony/Phil Jackson rift just adds to Knicks stagnation

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Carmelo Anthony and Phil Jackson had a chilly talk, and Anthony told Jackson the star forward wants to stay in New York. Which, based on the mind games we’re seeing, is not what Jackson wants — although you get the feeling Jackson wants to move Anthony to bring in more stop-gap, win now pieces rather than try to build a future around Kristaps Porzingis.

Which all speaks to why the Knicks have made the playoffs just three times in 13 years. What is the Knicks long-term plan?

I discuss it all in this latest PBT Extra. Well, except the long-term plan because nobody knows what that is.

Rajon Rondo strangely runs behind Rick Carlisle during play (video)

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This would be ignored – still odd, but ignored – if it weren’t for their history.

But Rajon Rondo running behind Rick Carlisle during the Mavericks’ win over the Bulls raised a couple eyebrows in curiosity and drew a few chuckles. What was Rondo doing?

At least Carlisle explained why he didn’t call timeout before Wesley Matthewsgame-winning 3-pointer. The Dallas coach had Rondo in mind.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Mike D’Antoni: “James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach”

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 07: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets looks on against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Verizon Center on November 7, 2016 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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It’s not exactly Seven Seconds or Less Part 2 in Houston, but it may be closer to Mike D’Antoni’s ultimate vision.

The Rockets are 32-12 with the third-best offense in the NBA (Toronto and Golden State), and it’s an analytics wet dream of threes and shots at the rim. It’s all come together because James Harden bought in. Steve Nash ran the offense brilliantly but differently — Harden is as good or better with his style (which gets him to the line more often).

The brilliant Howard Beck at Bleacher Report got everyone to talk about the Rockets rapid rise and how it all came together. It’s must read. Plus there are some brilliant quotes, starting with Harden about D’Antoni pitching the move to point guard:

“I thought he was crazy,” says Harden, who earned his stardom at shooting guard….

Or as D’Antoni put it, “James Harden was the perfect superstar for how I would like to coach.”

“People always ask, ‘You traded for him; did you know he was this good?'” (Rockets GM Daryl) Morey says. “I’m like, ‘F–k no!’ I mean, we thought he was extremely good and better than other teams probably did.”

But not top-five good or, say, top-three, which Morey would make the case for today.

Harden is MVP-level good. What’s more, the Rockets are knocking on the door of contender good. The pedestrian defense isn’t there yet (18th in the NBA for the season, 15th for the month of January), questions about depth and if young key cogs like Clint Capela can grow into the roles the Rockets need them to, and there are the health concerns considering the histories of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.

But the Rockets are dangerous right now and could reach the Western Conference Finals this season if healthy and things break right (their style and athleticism would be a tough test for the Spurs).  And the story of how it all came together is fascinating.