The goal for the refitted Knicks next season is going to be this simple: To have the last laugh.
They'll be hoping to laugh for a couple of reasons. Having agreed to terms with Metta World Peace on Monday, the usually humorless Knicks are going to have more to smile about in conversation. "I wanted to go to Detroit," he told reporters during his last run as a free agent in 2009, which was five years after the brawl he incited there. Instead he signed with the Lakers, played a crucial role in their Game 7 win in the 2010 NBA Finals, and then was released via amnesty last week.
"I was really ready to go to China and play for Yao [Ming, owner of the Shanghai Sharks]," said World Peace. Previously he had spoken of retiring, playing arena football, becoming a coach or signing with the L.A. Kings. Instead he agreed to return home to New York, and in so doing -- here's another good laugh for New York -- he made the Knicks younger.
World Peace will turn 34 in November, which will make him the third-oldest player in the Knicks' rotation (assuming they re-sign 35-year-old Kenyon Martin, as expected). Age gives the Knicks reason to believe they can ultimately outperform the Nets and emerge as the best NBA team in New York.
It has been a bad summer for the Knicks in terms of headlines, because the Nets' acquisition of three champions from Boston has made them the early frontrunner in America's media capital. The Nets won 49 games last year in spite of putting together a new roster that didn't quite fit, going through two coaches, and then drifting through a first-round playoff loss to depleted Chicago as if having overdosed on the kind of medication one should never take when operating heavy machinery.
The enhanced Nets promise to be a sensational regular-season team next winter. Their passivity will be eclipsed from the opening day of camp by Kevin Garnett, whose hyper-focus in practices and games will change the identity of his new team. "You have to deal with him emotionally, physically, mentally, and then with his talent," said Doc Rivers of Garnett last May after what turned out to be the last game of their six years together in Boston. "He changed our whole way. I can preach it all day, but when you have a guy walking the walk [of] what you're saying, your franchise changes. Every new guy that came in here, even vets -- stars -- who came in, from Shaq on, they had to change a little bit around Kevin."
The arrival of Garnett and Paul Pierce gives the Nets a starting lineup of five All-Stars. With a relatively deep bench and new coach Jason Kidd making a positive impact on point guard Deron Williams, the Nets ought to be able to make up last season's five-game deficit and surpass the Knicks to win the Atlantic next season. For the Knicks, the key response to those occasionally humiliating six months is going to be patience.
Of Brooklyn's top 10 players, a half-dozen are going to be 32 or older next season. Four of them are going to enter the season ranked among the top 13 active players in terms of career minutes. Garnett is going to turn 38 during the second round of the playoffs. Pierce, who has not performed up to his high standard in recent postseasons, will be 36. So will be Jason Terry. Joe Johnson will be a 32-year-old shooting guard with more than 33,000 minutes on his legs entering next season. Andrei Kirilenko, who incited claims of cap violations when he sacrificed millions of dollars in order to play for his fellow Russian, owner Mikhail Prokhorov, is going to be 33, and he has missed at least 15 games in each of his last four NBA seasons.
How in the name of Tim Duncan are all of those elderly Nets going to withstand the long regular season and still have enough energy and good health left in their legs to run with the younger contenders in the East? The list of opponents that can be expected to show more postseason vitality than Brooklyn includes the defending champion Heat, the conference finalist Pacers, the Bulls of Derrick Rose and, yes, the Knicks.
New York will appreciate what Brooklyn is up against, because last season it was the Knicks who were the elders of their city. But that's not true anymore -- gone are Kidd (who was 40 last season), Kurt Thomas (40), Marcus Camby (39) and Rasheed Wallace (38).
The Knicks are going to miss the presence of Kidd, who had something to do with Carmelo Anthony having his best year as a leader. J.R. Smith will be coming off a knee surgery that will sideline him for the next three to four months, and Amare Stoudemire has missed 72 games over the last two years.
The Knicks are going to need consistency from injury-prone performers like Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani (whose arrival enabled the Knicks to survive the departures of Chris Copeland and Steve Novak). There are going to be more than a few times when coach Mike Woodson is going to be happy to not have any hair to pull out of his head as he tries to coach a second unit of World Peace and J.R. Smith.
Otherwise, the Knicks' roster makes sense. Bargnani, the former No. 1 pick of the Raptors, can start as a stretch four who will create space for Anthony to post up and for Tyson Chandler to dive inside for lobs. Bargnani will be 28 next season and Stoudemire will be a 31-year old coming off the bench. World Peace can play both forward positions, and everyone else (apart from 37-year-old backup point guard Pablo Prigioni) is going to be at his peak age or younger.
The Nets may be superior for much or all of the 82 games. But it's a long season, and the younger Knicks will have good reason to focus on the ultimate truth of the NBA -- that it's not how you start, but how you finish.