By Steve Lichtenstein
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The NBA, like everything else that exists on this planet, is evolving.
Usually, these changes don’t occur right before our very eyes. If you’ve been watching these highly entertaining NBA Finals games, however, it’s kind of hard to miss.
Most analysts agree that this best-of-seven series — to some degree — turned prior to Game 4 in Cleveland. With Golden State trailing 2-1, Warriors coach Steve Kerr opted to bench starting center Andrew Bogut.
Other than brief but disastrous three-minute cameos by Bogut and backup Festus Ezeli, the Warriors went uber small, with six-foot-seven Draymond Green as the nominal “five” on the floor for the majority of the last two games.
It didn’t matter that the Cavaliers featured a frontcourt comprising 7-footer Timofey Mozgov and 6-foot-9 board beast Tristan Thompson. In the end, it was the Warriors’ superior all-around play that won both days. Golden State’s 104-91 home victory on Sunday gave them a 3-2 lead in the series and put them on the precipice of their first NBA title since 1975.
Kerr’s Warriors are a blur of speed, athleticism, teamwork and unconscious long-range shooting. This is how most teams win in the 21st century. The days of dumping the ball into Wilt, Kareem, Hakeem or Shaq in the low post and then clearing out are over.
These old-school centers — especially the ones who can’t handle the ball, pass out of double-teams or stretch the floor from three-point territory — are becoming extinct.
Which brings me to the Brooklyn Nets, who in the next two weeks could be in a quandary over what to do with their own dinosaur — center Brook Lopez.
Lopez must decide by June 29 whether or not he will opt out of the final year of his contract. Though he is slated to be paid about $16.75 million by Brooklyn in 2015-16, Lopez might decide it would be better to ink a new deal this summer.
Lopez, who put forth a tremendous contract run over the final third of the season, has a lengthy injury history, with the brunt of the damage occurring in his right foot.
Over the regular season’s final 25 games, Lopez averaged 20.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.0 blocks. Without those contributions, the Nets wouldn’t have sneaked into the playoffs, where they fell to top-seeded Atlanta in six games.
He was healthy for most of 2014-15, but there’s no way to gauge the length of his remaining shelf life. Feet can be tricky propositions for NBA players. Just ask Bill Walton, Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — former NBA big men whose careers were cut way short after multiple foot surgeries, some similar to Lopez’s.
That is why Lopez may feel the urge to cash in his chips now, even though if he waits another year for free agency, more teams will have expanded cap room when the league’s new TV deal kicks in. He may not even receive offers that top his Nets salary for next year, but it would be a short-term sacrifice necessary to earn high paydays in multiple future seasons.
If Lopez does inform the Nets he is opting out, then the question for Nets general manager Billy King becomes: What price is right for Lopez?
As I’ve written ad nauseam, King shouldn’t be the one making this call. His philosophy of accumulating slow, isolation and mid-range specialists at exorbitant costs is what put Brooklyn in its current mediocre predicament.
Lopez does have a skill — he can put the ball in the basket from various points on the floor. But even in the stretches where he gets going, there’s unintended consequences to the team, like a stagnant offense. The ball sticks because Lopez doesn’t see the rest of the floor well enough to find spot-up shooters. His injuries have made him less effective going one-on-one at his defender in the post, leading to countless bad shots and turnovers.
Though he improved somewhat under coach Lionel Hollins’ sometimes-harsh tutelage, Lopez’s immobility makes him a liability on the defensive end. Opposing teams run pick-and-rolls at Lopez with tremendous success. Lopez may swat a couple of shots every game, but the many he doesn’t get are almost always put back in off offensive rebounds.
Lopez’s injuries gave King a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card after trying to build the team around Lopez (and point guard Deron Williams). But in reality, even this healthy version of Lopez isn’t an example of where the league is trending.
But Nets ownership has apparently glossed over King’s failure to adapt to modern times, so don’t be surprised if the Nets max out Lopez again.
It would be a mistake. Like doubling down on 14 in blackjack.
The best way for the Nets to rebuild is to clear their cap space and learn to shop for value over the temptation of high-priced “stars.” Despite how many in the media rave about Brooklyn’s “cache,” the Nets aren’t enticing a truly transformational player to come here any time soon. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry — forget about them.
Put a premium on anyone who combines athleticism with efficiency from three-point range. In this era, Jimmy Butler is worth big bucks; Lopez is not.
In a bit of irony, ESPN reported last week that Milwaukee — led by Hollins’ predecessor, Jason Kidd — will be one of the primary suitors for Lopez’s services should he opt for free agency.
Kidd couldn’t make it work with Lopez when he had him in Brooklyn. The Nets were 9-17 after a December defeat in Philadelphia during which Lopez broke his ankle and was lost for the season.
The Nets were 10-21 at the New Year when Kidd scrapped the traditional lineup in favor of a smaller and more versatile version, like we are now seeing from both Cleveland and Golden State.
The result was 33 wins in Brooklyn’s next 46 games, and their first playoff series victory since Kidd led the Nets on the court in 2007.
One of the (many alleged) reasons why Kidd bolted Brooklyn while under contract for the bright lights of Wisconsin was that he didn’t feel he could integrate Lopez into this new-wave team concept.
So now Kidd wants Lopez for the Bucks? On a team built around players who constantly switch on defense and run the floor?
Though I suspect that this is just Kidd’s tweak at King, I’d call his bluff. Go ahead and take him.
I’d rather the Nets build around players like Khris Middleton, the 6-foot-7 swingman who shot over 40 percent from three-point range in Milwaukee and is now a restricted free agent.
As luxury taxpayers who are forbidden from acquiring players via sign-and-trades, the Nets would have to move others around for that to happen. Plus, I can’t imagine the Bucks letting Middleton go after clearing cap space by dumping Ersan Ilyasova’s contract on Detroit last week.
Give Kidd credit for reading the tea leaves. “Jurassic World” may be number one at the cinema, but you can’t get anywhere close to number one in the NBA by showcasing dinosaurs like Lopez.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.