- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- Pay no attention to the snapshot reviews from the Knicks' and Nets' first few nights. They're about as reliable for projecting the future as Carmelo Anthony's last flip-flop on his pending free agency. Now he says he wants to test free agency and "retire a Knick." Perhaps soon he'll also tell us if he foresees inserting a few gap years in Los Angeles before that happens.
Anthony's latest look-at-me moment is yet another reason there's no need to put too fine a point on why the Nets, not the Knicks, look more likely to prevail in their smoldering rivalry or their Atlantic Division race by the end of this season. Most of the reasons are driven by the character of the organizations that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and the Knicks' James Dolan have built, and the way the two owners have behaved when they're not trading boasts of having teams that can win the NBA title this season.
While Prokhorov went and backed up his ambitions by laughing off having to pay $180 million in luxury taxes and pulling off the blockbuster trade that landed ex-Celtics stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett -- guys who actually know a little something about winning a championship -- Dolan did this:
He fired general manager Glen Grunwald, who presided over the Knicks' 54-win season and Atlantic Division title a year ago.
He saw Anthony, his marquee attraction, lance the excitement surrounding this season by announcing his intentions to explore free agency next summer.
He presided over the Knicks' decisions to trade Steve Novak and Marcus Camby (no quibbles there), only to get back ... um ... Andrea Bargnani? Bargnani is the added bait to convince Anthony to stay in New York while Anthony is out keeping his other recent promise to recruit fellow stars to play with him next year. (But where exactly would the All-Star posse Anthony puts together play? Conspicuously enough, Anthony didn't initially say -- until Thursday, when he said he meant New York all along.)
The season is only two games old and the self-sabotaging dramas already beginning to kick up around the Knicks feel familiar. It reminds you of the old Bob Arum line, "Yesterday I was lying; today I'm telling the truth."
Bargnani is an athletic but one-dimensional forward who was booed in have-a-nice-day Toronto last season. Even Knicks coach Mike Woodson admitted he's a player who doesn't perfectly mesh with his defense-and-rebounding coaching style.
No wonder Prokhorov was grinning as if he had pulled off a coup when Pierce and Garnett and Jason Terry were introduced this summer as Nets. The Russian oligarch's personal fortune is so enormous, it was all he could do not to laugh out loud at reporters' repeated questioning of his carefree attitude toward the luxury tax. We'll do anything to win a championship, he said again and again.
When it comes to having the acumen to run a business or build one from scratch, Prokhorov has demonstrated he is light years ahead of Dolan there too.
The latest evidence that Dolan has wrestled back the reins of the team -- right down to the micromanaging edict that he wanted young players to fill the last three spots on the roster --- should make Knicks fans antsy.
Dolan underscored that point by choosing this season -- not last -- to crib a page from Prokhorov's early playbook and tell the Knicks behind closed doors that he expects them to win an NBA title.
It could happen. Don't laugh. All it would take is Miami falling into the sea; Chicago moving to the Russian league; and a giant sinkhole suddenly opening up and swallowing the Midwest from Indianapolis to Oklahoma City, just as both teams were going through their morning walk-throughs.
Even if the Knicks were good enough to win a title as currently constructed -- they're not -- Dolan has yet to inspire even a whiff of confidence that he would know how to get out of the way and let it happen.
Kicking Grunwald to the curb and rehiring Steve Mills, who presided over one of the worst on-court stretches in Knicks history, underscores that.
Dolan's title boast put too much pressure on Woodson to overperform with an imperfect roster full of challenging personalities. But it was especially silly given how much Anthony's earlier-stated promise to explore free agency will also shadow this season. It will undoubtedly drive weeks of questions, right up to the trade deadline and beyond, about whether the Knicks can do enough to keep Anthony from leaving or if they should trade him so they aren't left with nothing if he goes.
If you recall, Knicks fans have been through this dance before, with the LeBron James sweepstakes.
It ended up being the Summer of Amar'e.
The Nets, on the other hand, look to be on more solid footing. They have Deron Williams and Brook Lopez to rely on, even if Garnett needs to be spelled some nights and the truth about Pierce is he ain't The Truth he once was.
It will be interesting to see if first-year Nets coach Jason Kidd copies Doc Rivers' approach in Boston and decides to emphasize keeping Pierce and Garnett fresh enough to be playing great at the end of the season. And if the Atlantic Division title comes, it comes.
So pay no attention to the Nets' thudding opening-night loss in Cleveland on Wednesday. They always figured to be a work in progress early in the season. And recognize that the Knicks, who blew a 25-point lead against Milwaukee before hanging on in the last minute to win, looked precisely the way they figure to look all season. They're not a god-awful team. Just flawed. And Woodson is an under-recognized strength. He does a terrific job stamping out brush fires and demanding accountability and managing people.
The best news is, the intradivision rivalry feels real now that we have Dolan and Prokhorov, and Garnett and Melo snarling at each other. The knowledge that Prokhorov and Dolan have declared they're on the same timetable to win a title is going to make this feel like 82 one-game seasons. The head-to-head tote board will be updated daily: Who's up? Who's down? Which team has the biggest upside? Which owner looks like the horse's backside today?
Lines in the sand have been drawn. The Knicks can't smugly assume they own the city anymore. And the tepid interest the Exit 16W Nets inspired, even when they did make the NBA Finals but still played just off the Jersey Turnpike, seems like a long time ago.
The rivalry between Prokhorov and Dolan will create 82 one-game seasons.