By Steve Lichtenstein
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In typical Billy King fashion, when the entertainment on the court starts to ebb, the Nets general manager finds a way to create excitement off of it.
It could be just another tease, but reports everywhere are alleging that the Nets will finally rid themselves of Brook Lopez once and for all.
The 26-year-old center—a 2013 All Star in between multiple fractures to his right foot that (along with other injuries) forced him out of 159 games over the past three-plus seasons—could be dealt this weekend to Oklahoma City as part of a three-way trade with Charlotte that would bring Brooklyn native Lance Stephenson back to his home borough.
All of the pieces haven’t been nailed down, but there were reports that Nets point guard Jarrett Jack—the emergency starter with Deron Williams out with a fractured rib—could also be headed west to the Thunder in exchange for veteran center Kendrick Perkins.
With Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov stating that he is listening to offers from prospective buyers, any deal that excises Lopez and his max contract (which he can—and most likely will–opt into for the 2015-16 season) makes financial sense. Stephenson has another year earning $9 million before a team option prior to the 2016-17 season while Perkins’ $9.6 million contract expires after this season.
Considering that the Nets are in luxury tax hell, the savings would not be immaterial (about $24 million this year and $14 million next season, according to the New York Post).
But Nets fans like myself are less concerned with Prokhorov’s net worth than we are with how the team will function on the court.
The reported holdup on the trade is that the Nets are doing due diligence on the 24-year-old Stephenson’s character. He wore out his welcome in Charlotte barely a month into his free-agency signing. There were some reports that the Nets are concerned with Stephenson’s off-the-court associations should he come home.
So yes, the Nets would be taking some risk here.
But let’s also acknowledge one crucial fact: Brook Lopez is not Brook Lopez any more.
Some will argue that Lopez just needs more time to adjust to the reconstructive surgery on his foot. I would counter that it’s just as likely that he’ll break down for good as it is that he will regain his former form.
We can all look back fondly on the days when Lopez was a threat to score from anywhere inside the three-point line. He could back opposing centers down with a variety of low-post moves and, if the defender played off of him, he could step back and knock down a mid-range shot. He was lethal cutting into the paint off pick-and-rolls and could also bail you out at the end of the shot clock.
Unfortunately, the litany of injuries have taken just about everything out of Lopez’s arsenal—except the mid-range jump (set) shot. Per NBA.com, Lopez has scored just 30 points on 53 isolation plays this season, the second-worst efficiency among players with more than 50 such plays (To be fair, Stephenson is the seventh-worst, with 38 points on 56 iso’s).
The Lopez we are seeing now is just too slow. He has no left hand and he is a horrendous passer out of the post. He bogs down the offense as much as he helps.
And we haven’t even talked about Lopez’s defense and rebounding—or rather the lack thereof.
I’ve ranted for years how Lopez’s failure to embrace a “get after it” mentality set the team back. I predicted that his season-ending injury a year ago would not be a death knell but actually an addition by subtraction, since it forced then-coach Jason Kidd to change the Nets’ identity.
It’s no wonder that Nets fans have taken to Mason Plumlee—he’s everything Lopez isn’t. There’s never any question about Plumlee’s effort or charges that he’s playing outside a team concept. So what if every shot outside of three feet is a challenge? He’ll make up for it by winning a 50-50 ball, or crashing the offensive glass for one of his rim-rattling dunks, or hustling back on defense to block a fast-break attempt (see: LeBron James, Miami Heat vs. Nets).
Even when healthy, Lopez never excelled at any of these things that are crucial to winning games.
So I ask any of you who have qualms about this deal: What exactly did you think you would get for Lopez?
The Nets have been trying to deal Lopez since before they moved to Brooklyn, when King got Nets fans hot and heavy with rumors that Dwight Howard was on the way to catapult the franchise to the next level.
Nothing ever materialized, and Lopez’s market value has since plummeted. You’re not getting a “star” for Lopez now, nor are first-round draft picks in play. The Nuggets received a pair of first-rounders for Timofey Mozgov, but they figure to be at very low slots given the protections and the fact that the original owners (Thunder and Grizzlies) could easily be among the league’s elite next year.
I don’t think Stephenson has to be a star for this prospective trade to benefit Brooklyn. He was a very diligent defender in Indiana and figures to be a drastic improvement over Bojan Bogdanovich or Sergey Karasev, both of whom are woefully inadequate when it comes to guarding NBA wings.
Stephenson likes the ball in his hands—which could pose a problem for a team that already has Williams and Joe Johnson—and his shooting (especially from three-point range) has been atrocious this season. But Stephenson has shown in the past that he is a willing passer. He posted double-digit assist totals in six games last season. For comparison, D-Will produced seven such games and Johnson none in the same time frame.
It’s not like the Nets were going anywhere with the status quo. They’re mired in a seven-game losing streak that has them on the lottery precipice (without the benefit of owning their first-round draft pick). Their upcoming schedule is ominous, beginning with a home-and-home series with Washington on Friday and Saturday.
If Stephenson is rejuvenated by coming home, then this could be as much a game-changer as the lineup tweaks Kidd made last year.
Now, if Stephenson went off the deep end or got in trouble in Brooklyn, then this trade would be another one of King’s follies. There also has to be a point guard plan if Jack is indeed dealt, as the Nets would be stuck with just Darius Morris until whenever D-Will returns.
But no matter what, at the very least we can be assured that King didn’t trade away any more first-round draft picks.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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