By Steve Lichtenstein
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If you asked me four weeks ago about what Nets center Brook Lopez was going to do this offseason, I would have brushed the question aside as it interested me as much as exhibition baseball scores.

Lopez, who owns a $16.7 million player option for the 2015-16 season, can choose to test free agency this summer or he could hang out in Brooklyn for another year and then wait until the expanded salary cap takes effect before inking his next deal.

Even when Lopez was putting up the prolific scoring numbers that earned him a berth on the 2013 All-Star team, I had always maintained that he wasn’t a winning player. To the contrary, his play epitomized all that was keeping Brooklyn from reaching further heights—the low-running motor, the lack of athleticism, the selfish preference for isolation one-on-one sets, and the failures in the clutch.

And that overpaid contract. Along with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, Lopez’s albatross contract hindered the Nets’ ability to make certain moves since they put Brooklyn over the League’s luxury tax threshold.

Lopez’s medical history posed more risks. He missed 150 games in the prior three seasons, mostly due to multiple fractures in his right foot that needed to be reconstructed last summer. I lived in fear that one more false step and he’d be playing pickup with Yao Ming.

So if Lopez wanted to walk, I was comfortable that at least the Nets would get some cap relief to rebuild. The Nets were never going to be truly competitive anyway with an anachronistic center who routinely got twisted like a pretzel in pick-and-roll defense and rebounded like a guard.

Don’t get me wrong—Lopez is that rare player who can pile up points in a hurry. His ability to make shots from various angles and distances does have value. That’s why he’s been traded countless times over the last few years by the media.

But never by Brooklyn’s general manager Billy King.

Lopez was supposedly all wrapped to be sent to Oklahoma City at the February 19 trade deadline in a three-team deal that would have returned point guard Reggie Jackson.

When the Thunder pulled the bait-and-switch at the last hour (obtaining Enes Kanter from Utah instead), I pictured the Nets limping to the finish line with no postseason on their calendar and their future looking even more bleak.

Instead it (along with King’s acquisition of Thaddeus Young in exchange for Kevin Garnett) proved to be a different kind of turning point.

Because without Lopez, the Nets would not be enjoying this current 8-2 run that has vaulted them into the eighth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference. Simply put, Lopez has been the best player on the court over the last seven games, averaging 28.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game on 62 percent shooting from the floor.

Fresh off his Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor, Lopez figured to be priority No. 1 for Frank Vogel’s Pacers on Tuesday night at Barclays Center. Well, whatever Indiana’s game plan was, it didn’t work, as Lopez poured in 20 of his 24 points in the first half to lead the Nets to a huge 111-106 victory.

The win improved the Nets’ record to 33-40 with the lowly Knicks on tap Wednesday night at the Garden. Brooklyn is now a half-game ahead of Boston and just a half-game behind Miami for seventh in the East.

“I think the ball has been moving really freely the past number of games,” said Lopez on why he’s been more effective. “You can see everyone’s really comfortable on the court and we’ve been jelling and playing well together.”

Nets coach Lionel Hollins deserves some credit here for limiting Lopez’s isolation post-ups and instead has been featuring him in more pick-and-rolls, where Lopez has developed brilliant chemistry with Williams. Williams is expert at hitting Lopez where all he needs to do is catch and shoot, which is where Lopez thrives.

And while Lopez can get on a roll with his “pick-and-sticks” (copyright: YES announcer Ian Eagle) from mid-range, more of his attempts are coming from the paint. His increased interior presence has in turn led to a precipitous rise in Lopez’s offensive rebounding rate.

But as I noted above, a healthy Lopez was always a point machine. What’s made this run a bit different is Lopez’s improvement (albeit marginal) in other areas of basketball.

For example, Hollins was quick to praise Lopez not for any of his field goals on Tuesday, but for his passing up a 20-footer with the shot clock winding down to find Johnson in the right corner for a three-pointer that put the Nets up, 108-100, with 15 seconds left in the game.

“Joe’s been making those shots for us all year long,” said Hollins. “He got that opportunity because Brook passed it to him. Those kind of plays, once you start doing them, they become contagious.”

Also, Lopez was central in the Nets’ pair of defensive stands that preceded Johnson’s dagger. In both cases, the Pacers were unable to break down the Nets’ pick-and-roll defense and forced up hurried three-pointers that had no chance.

“We stayed home,” said Hollins of the stops. “We switched when he had to. I just thought we played smart and we played fairly disciplined.”

Those are characteristics not usually associated with a Lopez-centered defense. But the advanced stats back up the eye test. The Nets have been yielding 100.9 points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor over the last 10 games versus 105.3 points in the prior games.

Oh, Lopez will still revert to his old ways against certain teams (Boston, Miami) that are coached well enough to force him to play out of his comfort zone, but since the break he has been as complete a player as he’s ever been.

With Lopez, who comes across as an affable, happy-go-lucky sort who seems as interested in the fantasy worlds of comic books as he is in the cold reality of NBA life, who knows what turned on the switch?

It could be the maturity that comes with turning 27 years old on Wednesday. Or he could be tired of being on the wrong end of Hollins’ lip.

Or—for us cynical folks–maybe he realized he is playing for his next contract.

Over his seven years with the franchise, Lopez went from being a high first-round draft pick who was once the centerpiece of a reported deal for an in-his-prime Dwight Howard to someone the Nets couldn’t even give away. No one wanted to commit to $16.7 million for Lopez next year, never mind doling out a max extension that would tie up cap space for multiple ensuing years.

Lopez has been able to change the dialogue through his recent play. Now it’s not what will the Nets do if Lopez (and Young, who also has a player option for next season for nearly $10 million) decides to stay and keeps the team in luxury tax hell for another year, but how in the world can the Nets allow Lopez to leave if he opts out?

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.


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