By Steve Lichtenstein
» More Columns
I may be a little off, but by my last count Brook Lopez has been traded about 750 times by the media over his nine-year career as nothing but a Net.
So go ahead and dismiss me for crying wolf, but I’m predicting that after numerous near-misses, including the most recent one at the 2015 trade deadline when even NBA seer Adrian Wojnarowski (now with Yahoo’s The Vertical) had the 7-foot center’s bags packed for Oklahoma City, the Nets will find a way to trade Lopez sometime this season.
What’s different now?
Unlike his predecessor, Billy King, Nets general manager Sean Marks appears to have a blueprint for a rebuilding plan, and there have been no indications that he will deviate from it.
That plan calls for this season to be about prioritizing player development for the future above other instant gratifications such as winning. The Nets, for all the grit they have shown in their 1-2 start, will soon wilt under the weight of their nightly talent deficit when compared to the other teams on their schedule. Without a lottery pick of their own until at least 2019, the Nets probably won’t be competitive for a while.
In this environment, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which the 28-year-old Lopez will be around when the tide turns. His value as a tradable asset was never nearly as high as his worth to the Nets, and it’s only going to decrease from here.
For all his gifts as one of the NBA’s most feared interior scorers, Lopez is a horse-and-buggy in a league veering toward race cars. He is not a great fit for the motion offense that new coach Kenny Atkinson likes to run as it emphasizes ball and player movement in contradiction to Lopez’s ball-stopping instincts.
On defense, Lopez is too slow to be effective in almost any scheme, let alone one that looks to be active in forcing turnovers. He’s always been a below-average rebounder and, outside of blocking a couple of shots per game, he does little to dissuade opponents’ attacks at the rim.
In the first three games of the season, the Nets have treated their best player in such a curious manner that it makes one wonder what they are saving Lopez for.
In Wednesday’s opener in Boston, Lopez was limited to 21 minutes, never expending more than five minutes of energy in any continuous run. The Nets were getting blown out of the building before a furious comeback attempt by the garbage-time crew fell five points short of a miracle.
“What we’re trying to do with Brook is take a long-term approach,“ said Atkinson at his news conference following the loss in Boston. “We’re looking at the whole season, and we really just want to build him up as the season goes on and increase his minutes. We have a plan in place, and that was part of the plan.”
Harder to explain was why Lopez spent so much of his time on the court stationed 25 feet from the basket. To get any paint touches, he had to drive the ball inside himself, which is not his forte. His line for the night read: 1-of-7 from the floor, including 0-of-2 from 3-point range, and 4-of-4 from the foul line for just six points. This from a player who consistently registers 18 to 20 points per night.
To be fair, Boston bigs Al Horford and Amir Johnson did a good job of moving Lopez further out on his post-up attempts, but it was clear that the Nets’ offensive intent for the evening was not geared toward finding their leading scorer in spots where he does the most damage.
“I think (Lopez) is learning our offense and our players are learning him — where he wants the ball, how he wants it,” said Atkinson prior to Friday’s’ home opener versus Indiana. “In our motion offense, there are plenty of opportunities to get him the ball on the block. It’s going to be a gradual process.”
Against the Pacers on Friday in front of a charged-up Barclays Center crowd, Lopez went back to being Lopez. He was bumped up to 26 minutes, and he responded by pouring in 25 points in a surprising 103-94 victory. To audible groans from a good portion of the sold-out crowd, Lopez took — and missed — four 3-pointers, but he was 10-of-14 on 2’s, using his size and craftiness around the hoop to score on a dizzying array of moves.
“You guys are going to be bored at me for repeating that, but we’re all new players with different varieties of games, personalities, and we’re still adjusting to each other,” Lopez said. “We can be even better.”
Following the exhilarating win, the Nets took off for Milwaukee for a back-to-back on Saturday. Except Lopez didn’t board the plane. He was ordered to stay home to rest.
So much for the team of new players building on its newfound chemistry with Lopez.
The organization can throw around all the analytics and performance reports it can produce, but the decision not to dress Lopez for Game 3 can only be interpreted as a sign that it has motives that go beyond anything it has made public.
It’s not like Lopez is Kevin Garnett, who was routinely given nights off on back-to-backs during his season-plus as a Net. Lopez is 12 years younger and has considerably less tread on his tires than KG.
It’s not like the Nets need to keep Lopez fresh for a lengthy playoff run either. In the “Spurs model,” of which Marks is uniquely familiar after working in the San Antonio organization for four years, programmed rest makes sense for a team that expects to be playing into June every season. On the other hand, if he’s not dealt by the trade deadline, Lopez may be shut down for good soon after, like he was last April.
And if playing Lopez was too much of a risk after a mere 26-minute stint, then why didn’t the Nets rest point guard Jeremy Lin as well? Lin battled through a rough 4-of-16, four-turnover outing in the Nets’ heartbreaking 110-108 loss to the Bucks.
Lin is the same age as Lopez and played 34 minutes against Indiana the night before — and in a much more frenzied state due to the added adrenaline he felt from his prodigal return to New York City. Yet Lin was active in Milwaukee.
For those who point to Lopez’s feet as a factor — he had multiple surgeries in prior years to correct structural problems — he hasn’t missed a game related to these issues in the last two seasons. ESPN reported that Lopez had a bout with plantar fasciitis in the summer, but he was not limited in any way during training camp and played in five of the six preseason games.
No, the Nets said that Lopez was fit to participate Saturday. The organization opted to “protect” their asset for a future gain over going for the immediate dividend from what could have been a win had Lopez taken the minutes given instead to the incorrigible Anthony Bennett against the Bucks.
This whole dance is all about maximizing long-term returns. If any health concerns were to surface, Lopez’s trade value would plummet further. Hence, the kid-glove treatment given to him at the start of this season.
I do trust Marks, who took over from King in February, to know when to buy and sell. Marks was able to acquire a first-round draft choice from Indiana in exchange for tweener forward Thaddeus Young over the summer. Though I initially thought that the 20th overall selection (which the Nets used to select Caris LeVert) was not adequate compensation, I accept that final judgment of the deal must be withheld until we know if LeVert can recover from his own foot problems to fulfill his significant potential.
One would think that Lopez would garner even better consideration, but the rest of the league has yet to agree with that premise. Lopez has come a long way down from all those rumors in which he was labeled as the primary target going the other way for All-Star center Dwight Howard, the object of King’s affection for years.
In the alleged Thunder trade, the Nets were supposed to get point guard Reggie Jackson in return, but at the last minute Oklahoma City pulled back and pivoted towards a deal with Utah for Enes Kanter. Remember that at the time Jackson was just a promising backup with a questionable attitude and Lopez was playing the most complete basketball of his career.
For the Nets to execute a trade this season (which would most likely occur after mid-December, when signed free agents are eligible to be dealt), they would probably have to take back players under contract so their partner could fit Lopez, who has another season to go on his three-year, $63.5 million max contract, in under the league’s salary cap.
Maybe if Marks takes on a bad one, he could pry a decent first-round pick from some unsuspecting team, as the Celtics did in 2013 when the Nets offloaded Gerald Wallace in the Garnett/Paul Pierce blockbuster.
Alas, no NBA organization is employing Billy King these days.
In any event, I’m betting that Marks will ultimately settle for the best offer he can get before the deadline to finally send Lopez to a new home.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1