By Steve Lichtenstein
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According to a report Tuesday by The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Lopez will be traded along with Brooklyn’s later (No. 27 overall) first-round pick to the Lakers in exchange for point guard D’Angelo Russell and center Timofey Mozgov.
Lopez, who remained loyal to the club that drafted him in 2008 with the 10th pick in the first round, will exit as the Nets’ all-time leading scorer. He was the face of the franchise for most of his nine-year career.
And an affable one at that, despite all the misery occurring in his midst.
Multiple foot injuries. Historically awful won-lost records, including last season’s 20-62 campaign. Constant trade rumors.
Yet every night the 7-foot center went about his business, a lock for something near 20 points on approximately 50 percent shooting. He was a master at scoring while utilizing a wide variety of maneuvers, angles and distances.
Unfortunately, Lopez’s flaws — substandard foot speed, unaggressive rebounding and laissez-faire defense — were huge contributing factors (though, I must emphasize, far from the only factors) as to why the Nets never won a playoff series with him on the court. (Brooklyn’s seven-game series victory over Toronto in 2014 occurred while Lopez was inactive with a broken right foot.)
While Lopez added 3-point range to his arsenal last season, converting 34.6 percent of his attempts after going 3-for-31 to start his career, he’s still very much an anachronism in the new pace-and-space NBA.
It’s why it was so difficult for the Nets to complete a fair swap for him all those years and why they had to move him now.
The 29-year-old Lopez will be a free agent after the 2017-18 season, when he will likely seek a significant raise from his current $22.6 million salary. Brooklyn is still years away from just whiffing at a playoff berth, so general manager Sean Marks made the correct call to recoup something while he could for his most marketable asset.
Lopez’s expiring contract made him that much more attractive to the Lakers, who also seized the opportunity to shed the albatross that is the remaining three years and $48 million on Mozgov’s deal so that they could create the cap space to become potential players in the highly anticipated 2018 free agency sweepstakes that could include superstars LeBron James and Paul George.
The Lakers own the second overall selection in Thursday’s NBA draft and are expected to take UCLA stud Lonzo Ball to replace Russell, who is obviously the key to this trade for Brooklyn and the reason some Lakers fans are feeling angst about it.
Also a second overall draft choice, the 6-foot-5 Russell has played two NBA seasons but is only 21 years old. His size and wingspan (just under 6-foot-10, per DraftExpress.com) hasn’t yet translated into top-notch defense, but there’s no denying his skills with the ball.
Russell has the potential to be an elite creator, for himself and his teammates. He will have to learn to cut down on the turnovers (his 12.3 percent turnover percentage was sixth highest among point guards averaging over 25 minutes per game last season), but his athleticism makes him capable of highlight-reel passes and finishes at the rim. Russell’s 35 percent efficiency from behind the arc in each of his two seasons bodes well for the future now that he will be embedded in the Nets’ 3-point development culture.
Besides, seeing Brooklyn black seems to bring out his best. He torched the Nets in their four meetings, scoring 98 points on 33-for-60 shooting from the floor, including 19-for-33 from 3-point land.
Assuming coach Kenny Atkinson can figure out a way to complement Russell with a healthy Jeremy Lin, the Nets’ backcourt looks a heck of a lot stronger. As an aside, Marks no longer should feel a need to overpay for European free agent Milos Teodosic, who is 30 years old and is rumored to be commanding at least a three-year contract term.
Mozgov, unfortunately, is Marks tripling down on the same bet he made when he acquired Andrew Nicholson in the Bojan Bogdanovic deal at last season’s trade deadline. Marks has been using the Nets’ ample cap space as a soft asset. Taking on Nicholson was the sweetener for Brooklyn to obtain Washington’s first-round pick (No. 22 overall) in Thursday’s draft.
Having Mozgov and Nicholson on the books won’t be an issue this offseason, as the Nets could still bid up to a max contract for a free agent on July 1 if they so choose, but paying two guys who can’t play a lick a combined $23.5 million per year through 2020 might become an anvil at some point.
Still, until we know what Russell can be in Atkinson’s system, it would be unfair to give Marks a bad grade on this deal.
As we all know, Marks has had to start at rock bottom after the devastation left behind by former general manager Billy King. The “process” to rebuild promised to be painstakingly slow because King dealt or swapped all but one of the Nets’ own first-round picks from 2011 to 2018. In 16 months, Marks has turned over the Nets roster to the point that 22-year-old Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is its longest-tenured member.
For months, it was assumed that Marks was holding out for a draft choice or two as consideration for Lopez. It turned out that the Nets lost a first-rounder, albeit one with low odds of NBA success. However, getting a known quantity such as Russell could prove to be a game-changer for Brooklyn and, in my opinion, is superior to the pot luck that is the NBA draft.
Even if it meant saying farewell to one of the best players in the franchise’s history.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1