By Steve Lichtenstein
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Forgive my bias, but Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez is the best offensive center in the game.
The great players are known to augment their skills each season, whether it be tinkering their low-post games or expanding their shooting ranges. Lopez, since he came to the Nets as their 10th overall selection the 2008 NBA Draft, has put the league on notice that he wants to join that category.
Lopez has developed his repertoire so that he is equally adept at knocking down shots from just about anywhere inside the three-point arc as he is with his back to the basket on the low block. Two foot surgeries that almost entirely wiped out his 2011-12 campaign proved to be just a minor stumbling block, as Lopez earned his first All-Star berth last season, averaging 19.4 points per game on 52.1 percent shooting.
Lopez, however, was not content with his play down low, so during the offseason he hit the weight room and bulked up to around 290 pounds.
The results through the Nets’ first four games this season have been impressive, with Lopez’s numbers improving to 20.5 ppg on 58.5 percent shooting following Tuesday night’s easy 104-88 Nets win over visiting Utah.
Lopez put up 27 points in 25 minutes on Tuesday night, overpowering the Jazz inside with a variety of moves and a soft touch in the paint. The Jazz tried doubling him, hacking him and putting some French guy whose wingspan made him look like he was 7-foot-8 on him. Nothing worked.
The added muscle will undoubtedly help Lopez when the Nets get to the more physical teams, like Chicago and Indiana, that stand in their way in the Eastern Conference.
Unfortunately, the Nets are going to need more from Lopez if they hope to realize their lofty goals this season.
Basketball does not have a version of the designated hitter, where a lacking defensive player doesn’t have to participate when the opponent has the ball. You see, for all of Lopez’s hard work and accomplishments on offense, he has a tendency to give much of it back on the other end.
Including Utah’s Enes Kanter’s 19 points — through three quarters, as I’m not including anything Kanter earned while Lopez sat out the fourth-quarter garbage time — on Tuesday night, opposing centers are averaging 16.5 points on 63.4 percent shooting against the Nets.
And it’s not just the one-on-one defense that is giving coach Jason Kidd and defensive assistant Lawrence Frank headaches. Lopez continues to look lost on high pick-and-rolls, giving opponents the courtesy of not contesting any mid-range jump shot they want.
That’s fine when they’re playing Utah, which has few capable shooters in its lineup after Gordon Hayward. But it didn’t work out so much in the Nets’ losses in Cleveland and Orlando. In both cases, the Nets’ defense with Lopez in the lineup was brutal.
In fact, the Nets’ best defensive effort — well, at least until the last three minutes — was in their win over Miami, when Lopez was limited to 20 minutes due to foul trouble.
Lopez has improved on his help-defense, which has led to an increase in his blocked-shot numbers. But on the other hand, Lopez never seems to get back into the play underneath if he doesn’t get a hand on the original shot. That’s how Kanter accumulated six offensive rebounds in three quarters last night.
In Cleveland, Lopez tied the game with a minute to go. What do you think the Cavs ran when it was their turn to need a basket?
The foul line pick-and-roll, of course, with Cavs guard Kyrie Irving dribbling around the screen set by Anderson Varejao to his right. Brooklyn guard Jason Terry stuck to Irving even when he reversed to go back around Varejao to the left side of the lane.
Lopez, however, was also tracking Irving, who then realized that Varejao was standing alone at the foul line. Irving flipped the ball to Varejao, who converted the easy jump shot for the go-ahead score with Lopez stuck in no-man’s land.
Again, that’s not an unusual occurrence. Lopez was called for a defensive three-second violation in the third quarter on Tuesday night, at which point the New York Post’s Tim Bontemps tweeted that he heard Nets guard Deron Williams say, with a smile, “What the hell are you doing? Camping?”
The elite teams don’t have these issues. Does Tom Thibodeau allow any of his Bulls regulars to get away with lackadaisical defense? What about in Miami? Or Indiana?
On these teams, if you have limitations, your minutes get limited, especially in crunch time.
It sounds blasphemous, considering all that Lopez brings to the table, but it might behoove Kidd to make Lopez the odd man out in certain games where his defensive liabilities exceed his offensive assets.
The Nets can go with a front line of Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Paul Pierce when they need stops. It helps that none of those guys are offensive dead-enders like Reggie Evans, either.
In his first two games, Kidd has coached as if Brooklyn was a dream team in the Olympics. He rarely calls timeouts, and only foul trouble seemed to make him deviate from his rotation plan.
At some point, Kidd is going to have to make some hard choices, as there are only so many games the Nets can afford to throw away like the ones in Cleveland and Orlando.
I’ve been hoping that the Garnett addition would bring out some defensive passion in Lopez. Garnett’s leadership and communication skills are legendary.
In this small sample so far, it hasn’t. Strange, since Lopez has grown up to be the best in the NBA at his position on the other half of the court.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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