By Steve Lichtenstein
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This is not a call for the Nets to hit the panic button.
As much as the Nets’ back-to-back losses at Phoenix and Golden State sting, I get that the season is only eight games old. Besides, those results against high-tempo teams were far from inconceivable. Not many folks even expected Brooklyn to give the superior Warriors a scare in the fourth quarter on Thursday night, but they cut a double-digit deficit to five points before Golden State weathered the storm to win, 107-99.
The Nets, now 4-4 with one more game in Portland on Saturday on this western swing, are far from a finished product. They have a new coach, a new system and some new personnel to integrate. This is par for the course in Brooklyn, as Lionel Hollins was general manager Billy King’s third head-coaching hire in about 18 months, and King likes to burn-and-churn his roster like a chop-shop broker.
Usually I wait until around Christmas before I beg the Nets to make radical changes. In my head, I know it would be unfair to make rash judgments now based on such a small sample size.
However, after watching the Nets these last two nights, I can’t take it anymore.
Something has to be done with Brook Lopez.
The seven-foot center is just killing the Nets on both ends of the court. Per 82games.com, the Nets are far more effective with Lopez on the bench than when he is on the floor. The Nets have been scoring about five points less per 100 possessions and yielding about nine points more with Lopez versus without.
Lopez was never Joakim Noah even before three fractures in his right foot forced him to miss 150 games over the last three seasons (plus a mid-foot sprain on the same foot kept him out of the first two games this year).
Now he’s just a statue on defense.
Opposing teams salivate at the opportunity to put Lopez in pick-and-roll coverage, knowing that they can get any shot they so desire because of Lopez’s immobility.
And then there’s the matter of Lopez’s rebounding — or lack thereof.
The difference in the Warriors game wasn’t the play of Golden State’s outstanding Splash Brothers duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Oh, they combined to score 42 points, but the Nets will accept that on 39 percent shooting any night.
No, it was the Warriors’ 14 offensive rebounds that led to 19 second-chance points that doomed Brooklyn.
I can’t describe the frustration I felt watching the Nets repeatedly try to claw back into the game and then force a Warriors missed shot, only to seethe when Golden State retrieved the ensuing rebound and started another fresh possession. It was like falling for the dollar-bill-on-the-rope trick over and over.
The Warriors came into the game ranked last in the NBA with an average of seven offensive rebounds per game. Golden State center Andrew Bogut, who had been averaging two offensive rebounds per game, grabbed seven — most of them when matched up with Lopez.
This is not news. For the third straight season, Lopez owns the worst defensive-rebounding rate of all starting centers in the league. He’s rarely where he’s supposed to be and he has neither the quickness to the ball nor the fire in his gut to go get it.
In the past, the Nets lived with Lopez’s limitations in order to cash in on his prodigious offensive skill set. Despite a somewhat awkward-looking game, he’s a career 18 points-per-game scorer. Lopez was so dominant in 2012-13 that he earned his first All-Star selection.
Whether it’s the injuries or Hollins’ system, Lopez just doesn’t look anywhere near comfortable when the Nets have had the ball so far this season. Yes, there have been short spurts where Lopez has accumulated points rather quickly, but he’s shooting a career-low 46.6 percent from the floor. His mid-range game has disappeared and he’s forcing bad shots into the teeth of the defense at the most inopportune moments of the games.
Many believe it was Lopez’s disdain for passing out of the post that contributed to Joe Johnson’s outburst to the media prior to the road trip. Johnson admonished unnamed teammates for “selfish” play. Lopez has but one assist and nine turnovers this season.
Hollins has also been frustrated by what he’s been getting out of Lopez and, accordingly, he has curtailed Lopez’s minutes at various points this season. Hollins benched Lopez for the entire fourth quarter in the Nets’ home victory over Orlando last Sunday. Against Phoenix on Wednesday, Lopez was in and out of the final frame.
Two missed shots, a foul and some derelict rim protections later, a one-point Nets lead devolved into a five-point deficit.
I don’t want to pin all the blame for the Nets’ three losses in five games on Lopez, as others could have stepped up as well to turn the outcomes. In a bit of irony, Johnson’s penchant for isolation ball was partly responsible for the stagnation in the second-half offense in Phoenix after a wonderful first half seemed to have given the Nets firm control.
Still, Lopez has been a ball-and-chain on the Nets’ progression this season. Maybe if the Nets had more (any) athletic wings who could make up for Lopez’s lack of foot speed, or a power forward who wasn’t running on fumes like Kevin Garnett, then maybe I wouldn’t be so quick to question Lopez’s value to the team.
Unfortunately, as the Nets are currently constructed (thank you again, Billy King), Lopez is a horrible fit for this group.
So what should the Nets do?
It would be almost impossible to trade Lopez. No NBA team is looking for a one-dimensional center with a reconstructed right foot who will be guaranteed almost $16,750,000 next season (assuming Lopez exercises his player option). It appears that the Nets are stuck with Lopez for the time being.
But that doesn’t mean the Nets have to start him.
If he’s been useless down the stretch in the fourth quarter, why not go all the way and bring him off the bench from the beginning?
Garnett is far more suited to be the defensive anchor, even if the 38-year-old fatigues quicker when he plays center. Remember that the Nets were horrible with the Garnett/Lopez front line last season and only took off after the New Year when then-coach Jason Kidd replaced the injured Lopez with Garnett in a trendier, small-ball lineup.
Instead of Paul Pierce, who departed to Washington as a free agent over the summer, the Nets could use Mirza Teletovic as a “stretch-four.” Teletovic’s three-point range (he is shooting 44 percent from deep) will allow for better spacing in the Nets’ “flex offense.” The Nets would be losing out on a traditional low-post option, but they often start with a more inverted offense anyway. Johnson, Deron Williams and Bojan Bogdanovich are all comfortable playing with their backs to the basket.
As for defense and rebounding, Teletovic has been improving slowly in these departments. He’s not the world’s greatest help defender, but he’s been more diligent in crashing the boards. He is in the final year of his three-year contract, so he has more incentive to show consistency in his efforts on the defensive end.
As for losing Teletovic’s instant-offense capability off the bench, well, Lopez could take that over far easier. He’d be facing second-stringers and can share the scoring burden with Jarret Jack, who was sublime in a 10-for-10, 23-point outing at Golden State on Thursday.
Mason Plumlee would lose out on some minutes, but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over that. As Devin Kharpertian wrote in TheBrooklynGame.com, Plumlee’s efforts to expand his offensive game have made him worse. Intead of limiting his field-goal attempts to shots within inches of the rim, like he did last season, he’s been increasing his degree of difficulty. Ergo, it’s no mystery why Plumlee’s efficiency from the field has dropped from 66 percent to 45 percent.
Had Andrei Kirilenko’s game not dissipated by age, injury and/or neglect, I might have suggested that the Nets look to the multi-faceted Russian forward to shake things up. Unfortunately, Kirilenko has looked like he belongs in an over-40 men’s rec league every time Hollins has called his number this season. He’s too slow to guard small forwards and not big enough to bang with power forwards underneath the basket. And now, a year after his jump shot and foul shooting deserted him, Kirilenko can’t even make layups. What a shame for him and for all those who marveled at what this unique player was once able to do on the court.
And it’s a shame that injuries likely robbed Lopez of his chance to make a maximum impact on the NBA. It really wasn’t that long ago when he was in the conversation regarding the best centers in the league.
Now he doesn’t even belong on the floor when the Nets have a game on the line.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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