By Steve Lichtenstein
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So the Brooklyn Nets failed in their offseason attempt to land center Dwight Howard. Not a big deal, at least according to wise old talent connoisseur turned TV analyst Shaquille O’Neal. O’Neal said yesterday he believes that the Nets’ incumbent at the position is better. Sure it would have carried more weight if O’Neal knew his name, mixing up the Nets’ Brook Lopez with his brother, Robin.

Oh, if only that was the sole error in his statement. I’m guessing O’Neal was being a bit playful in tweaking the new big man in Los Angeles. Otherwise, it would have taken the Magic sending half their roster to the Nets in order to acquire Lopez instead of the other way around.

Still, with all of the hype and bravado surrounding Nets training camp this week after their summer roster makeover, I believe it is Lopez, one of the six returning players, who holds the team’s key to the playoff kingdom.

Yes, I am very much aware that this is Deron Williams’ team. And I agree that the Nets had no choice but to go above and beyond to entice the talented point guard in his prime to re-sign. All indications from training camp point to Williams taking on more of a leadership role after sulking in New Jersey for the better part of two years.

However, with no disrespect to Williams’ gifts and his accomplishments in Utah, he is not the type of player who can carry a team on his back — not the way a LeBron James, Kobe Bryant or even a Carmelo Anthony can. Those guys could keep their teams competitive even when they were basically surrounded by bricklayers. If Williams were in that category, his record when he took the court in a New Jersey uniform would have been a lot better than 25-42.

No, Williams needs a supporting cast, particularly a big man. In Utah, that man was Carlos Boozer, who took some of the scoring load and owned the backboards. So while the trade for Joe Johnson, the re-ups of Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace, and the importation of a whole new bench are all nice, there can be no talk of championship contention without Lopez taking the next step.

Hopefully, that step won’t be painful. Lopez’ 2010-11 season was pretty much obliterated by not one, but two broken bones in his right foot. The first occurred, of all places, in the final exhibition game against the Knicks, thereby sending any hope for the Nets’ last season in New Jersey crashing to the ground with Lopez. While the bones are supposedly all healed and Lopez is practicing without restrictions, I’ll be holding my breath every time he hits the floor when the games start.

Even when healthy, Lopez was far from the perfect player. Sure, O’Neal was at least correct in asserting that Lopez is one of the few players who can score with his back to the basket. (I’m not sure why O’Neal thought Howard wasn’t another.) What’s perplexing is that while Lopez’s points-per-game average was a career-best 20.4 in 2010-11, his rebounding and shot-blocking numbers are trending in the wrong direction. If you’re seven feet tall and playing 35 minutes per game, you should average more than six rebounds just by standing still in the paint.

Nets coach Avery Johnson has talked about the added emphasis on defense in his first training camp sessions. The Nets were one of the worst defensive teams last year by just about every measure. They couldn’t protect the rim (finishing last in blocked shots) nor could they defend the three-point line (finishing second-to-last in opponents’ three-point shooting percentage). That’s why Nets general manager Billy King tried so hard to get Howard. King saw the difference that Tyson Chandler made on the Knicks, where the team’s entire attitude on defense changed with that one signing.

Well, life in Brooklyn has to start without Howard. Instead, by having a healthy and active Lopez, Johnson has to hope he’ll have an easier time getting his players to run out to the line than when the grounded Sheldon Williams had their backs. Also, the Nets’ depth up front — with Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans capable of manning the middle for short spurts — should allow Lopez to be more aggressive in the paint and less concerned with foul problems.

There weren’t as many concerns on the offensive end. Lopez has developed a solid mid-range jump shot. He has moves facing the basket as well as posting up. He’s a career 80 percent free-throw shooter so, unlike with Howard, there are no fears of Lopez receiving the ball at the end of tight games. Now that the Nets have other scoring options, I would expect that Lopez will improve his assist numbers passing out of the post.

Lopez is only 24 years old. Sometimes he used to come across as a stereotypical slacker California dude who worried that he looked uncool if he tried too hard. He’d score over 30 points one night and then single digits the next. He was starting to get it in the latter half of the 2011 season, becoming more consistent.

It’s reminiscent of Tim Duncan, the San Antonio icon who O’Neal was reminded of when breaking down Lopez. Of course no sane person expects Lopez to reach Duncan’s heights. But then again, he doesn’t have to. With Williams conducting the orchestra, Lopez can focus on improving on the same tune night after night.

17-20 points, 8-10 rebounds, 2-plus blocks — I don’t think that’s a far-fetched average stat line for Lopez to achieve.

It might not match Howard, who also adds a lot more value to his team with his defensive presence, but I believe it’s close enough for the Nets to be able to compete with the other teams in the East. The only variable is Lopez’s health. I have no choice but to believe the published reports that there’s nothing structurally wrong with his foot.

We’ll begin to see how prescient O’Neal was when the games commence in a little over a week. The Nets close the exhibition slate on October 24 versus the Knicks. Maybe Lopez can skip that one.

What stat line do you predict for Brook Lopez if he manages to stay healthy for the whole season? Let us know in the comments section below…


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