- Stephen A. Smith, ESPNNewYork.com columnist
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If the mandate is a championship, let's face it: Right now, the Knicks and Nets are all we've got.
After a season of injury and intrigue, we've learned the Mets still stink and the Yankees aren't much better. Just a quarter through the NFL season, it's obvious mediocrity qualifies as the best description for the Jets and there are no words to accurately portray how pathetic the Giants are at this moment.
For all we know, there may be a new manager in the Bronx before Halloween, no reason to celebrate New York sports on Christmas, two new football coaches at MetLife Stadium by New Year's Day and much acrimony, dysfunction and chaos to banter about and dissect.
Yet in the midst of it all, a virtual miracle: None of that applies to the Knicks or the Nets. For once.
Both teams are coming off playoff appearances, feeling as if they should have advanced further. Both teams are expected to contend.
Both teams have at least one star. Both have billionaire owners -- with attitude -- who are unafraid to spend, with executives saddled with something to prove, blessed with players who could help them pull it off. And one even has two Hall of Famers, elevating their championship aspirations to something more than a pipe dream.
"We're chasing a championship," Knicks coach Mike Woodson told me recently. "No matter what anyone believes, that's what we're doing."
It was astute for Woodson to add that last part, because while it's easy to recognize and acknowledge both teams' presence in the upper echelon of the league, neither lacks question marks.
The Knicks are fresh off a 54-win season and a No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, plus they still have Carmelo Anthony. But the same team that topped the league in 3-pointers made and finished fifth in 3-point field goal percentage (37.6) while ranking seventh in points allowed (95.7) has the same guys who reverted to old habits of futile one-on-one basketball when the season was on the line, getting bounced out of the conference semifinals in six games by Indiana as a result.
"I think we're an improved team," Anthony reportedly said, alluding to the Knicks re-signing J.R. Smith to a multiyear extension while adding Metta World Peace in free agency and acquiring Andrea Bargnani in the offseason. "Chemistry and all of those things will need to come together, but I think we'll be better this year."
The thing is, that's not what Knicks fans want to hear.
Knicks fans would prefer to hear what's emanating from Nets camp, where Pierce is busy questioning whether a rivalry really exists, asking, "Who is J.R.?" and talking about how accustomed he is to beating the 'Bockers.
Keep in mind, it doesn't matter that the Knicks escaped the first round of last season's playoffs by beating an aging, depleted Boston Celtics squad. These Nets aren't those Celtics, and that is where the difference lies.
Pierce and KG are complementary pieces to Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. They're the individuals with a championship pedigree, seemingly hungrier for the defending champion Miami Heat than anyone outside of the Indiana Pacers.
The Nets -- not the Knicks -- are the team with an owner in Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov who is spending more than $80 million in luxury-tax dollars this season to pursue a title, who took Knicks point guard Jason Kidd and hired him as their new coach because, "He's the fire in the belly that we need."
Prokhorov is the one who flew all the way from Moscow just to arrive at the end of KG, Pierce and Jason Terry's introductory news conference, simply to say "Hello," shake their hands and remind them exactly why he's spending all this money -- before flying right back less than three hours later after lunch with GM Billy King.
"The man ain't playing," one Nets source told me. "We all know the mandate. He's not here to lose to anybody. But especially the Knicks."
Even the league office knows as much, since commissioner David Stern was called upon by Knicks chairman Jim Dolan to quiet all the smack talk Prokhorov was throwing in Dolan's direction.
A nice chat over dinner may have given the appearance of things smoothing over, but it's clear Prokhorov has no desire to imitate Dolan's less-than-winning ways.
Prokhorov wants an NBA championship in the worst way, and he seems willing to do whatever it takes to get it done. In acquiring KG and Pierce, he seems to have two individuals to help Kidd & Co. do the same.
Such tenacity, intensity and motivation appear to have had a contagious effect because Woodson, Melo and the Knicks are expressing similar sentiments for the upcoming season, forcing us to pay attention.
Considering the rest of the options left in Gotham City, how could we possibly ask for more right now?
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