We Found Lopez in a Hopeless Place: Your 2015-16 Brooklyn NetsAlex Goodlett/Getty Images
As presently constructed, the Brooklyn Nets are either a playoff team or the worst team in the NBA. If this sounds like an absurdly wide range, remember: This is the Eastern Conference we’re talking about. Only two 8-seeds in the East have finished with records at or above .500 in the last decade, and one of them played in the lockout-shortened season. Every team in the East has made the postseason at least twice since 2006; the Kings and Timberwolves share a single postseason appearance in that time. Saying the Nets have a chance to make the playoffs is the same as saying the Brooklyn Nets are still an active NBA franchise.
They are an actively odd NBA franchise, too. Last month, the Nets were placed last in ESPN’s ranking of the three-year outlooks for all 30 NBA teams. The largest Las Vegas sportsbook projected the team to have one of the five worst records in the NBA, which isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, except the Nets will not have full control of a first-round draft pick until 2019.1 They will also surrender five second-rounders from 2016 to 2020.
Despite all of this, they are one of the more intriguing teams in the league, if only because they’re trapped in a truly remarkable purgatory. For the foreseeable future, the Nets will rage against the dying of the light, hoping that by the time the new decade begins, they will emerge as a normal NBA team with normal NBA problems. The mediocrity treadmill is real — just ask the Nuggets or Hornets. We’ve seen teams fight like hell to avoid that fate. But for the Nets, the treadmill doubles as life support. In an age of free agency when the gravitational pull of massive media markets doesn’t quite net what it used to, the only hope Brooklyn has of landing a player like Kevin Durant is to show that the team is closer to relevance than one would assume. What little control they have over the draft picks they’re sending to Boston over the next three drafts can be exercised only by being better than the Celtics expect.
Spite will take center stage as a motivating factor in Brooklyn from the very beginning of the season, not just as a small source of fuel late in the season to dictate draft order and playoff seeding. If you believe in revenge games, the Nets might belong on your League Pass radar — Thomas Robinson might accidentally rupture a spleen playing with that fuck-you energy one can attain only after being acquired by six teams in less than three years; Shane Larkin will attempt to go off on the Knicks on four occasions to defend the honor of his tiny hands. The Nets won’t be playing a different game than any other team in the league, but from afar, it will feel like it. It’ll seem smaller and more myopic. But fandom has the miraculous ability to adjust to scale, even as the world shrugs.
Zealots can cite the team’s dramatic decrease in average age, ignoring an overcooked core that remains largely the same as last season’s alongside bargain-bin, reclamation-project garnishes with unclear roles. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 20, is most likely the team’s best defensive player and he hasn’t played a single minute yet. There are no god machines dropping from the sky anytime soon. If you’re searching for hope in Brooklyn’s vacuous black hole, you’ll have to peer into the center of it.
The Nets do have one key that could potentially circumvent the limbo they’ve built for themselves. His name is Brook Lopez, and — wait, stop laughing. Yes, he’s been thrust into this beacon-of-hope position for the bulk of his seven years in the league. Yes, it’s probably foolish to expect a major breakthrough heading into his eighth season, but there is still latent potential in that massive frame. He is the only player on the team with enough indisputable skill to convince an impending free agent to see the forest for the decaying trees. He might be the only thing keeping this Nets season from being hopeless. If only his talent didn’t go so aggressively against the tide.
Chisel Abraham Lincoln’s ass off his nearly-30-foot-high Georgia marble throne in Washington, D.C., and you’ll find Lopez’s closest physical comp. At first glance, Lopez’s body — similarly composed of blood, sweat, and metamorphosed limestone — appears to be a vestigial structure from a bygone era. He is a plodding, outmoded giant largely being put out of business by even rarer anomalies like Anthony Davis, Serge Ibaka, and Karl-Anthony Towns.
But there’s a place for Lopez. There will always be outliers in the league as long as there’s enough talent to push against trends. And while he is a dead ringer for the Mesozoic centers of the past, in the last year, he’s subtly altered his offensive game — more efficient, more diverse — to better suit the times.
When the Nets moved toward a more simplified pick-and-roll-centric offense, the breadth of Lopez’s talents began to show. He has operated less from a static position in the post. Nearly a quarter of Lopez’s possessions came as a roll man in a pick-and-roll. After shooting 38.6 percent from midrange in 2010-11 and 38.9 percent in 2012-13 (the two seasons before last in which he played at least 72 games), he shot a very good 43.8 percent last season. He looked good drilling a 3-pointer on the wing during a preseason game against Fenerbahce Ulker, and while his output beyond the arc won’t be a point of emphasis this season, it’s good to know he has both the ability and confidence.
Billy King and Lionel Hollins have called Lopez the team’s most explosive player during training camp. It’s hard to believe, but here’s a reminder of what Lopez is capable of. During the fourth quarter of an early April game between the Raptors and Nets,2 this:
… turned into this:
… which led to this:
With plays like these (and, surprisingly, he made quite a few last season), you almost want to take all of that “explosive” talk seriously.
Considering Lopez’s size, there will always be a debate as to where he is best suited spacially. His ability to stretch the floor provides options, but so does staying close to the rim. The Nets weren’t a very good rebounding team, but they were better with Lopez on the floor, despite his reputation as an atrocious rebounder.
In the 30 games after last season’s All-Star break, as the Nets were making their postseason push, Brook Lopez averaged 19.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game on 52.5 percent shooting. The Nets were more than seven points worse per 100 possessions when Lopez was off the floor than when he was on. That Brook Lopez, while on the floor, had the Nets offense operating near top-five levels. But he also anchored a defense that would have just narrowly escaped the bottom five.
And that’s where the problem lies. Lopez’s brilliance on offense can do only so much to mask the stench emanating from this defense.
Lopez isn’t a very good rim protector, and despite his size, he didn’t exactly deter defenders from trying, either. He allowed 10.6 field goal attempts at the rim per 36 minutes played, which is a rate comparable to Roy Hibbert’s 10.8. The only difference is 50 percent of those shots over Lopez went in, compared to 43 percent for Hibbert. Big difference, obviously. With his athleticism, Lopez is a good pick-and-roll defender, but he’s also not a guy who is going to become an instant salve when the defense breaks down (and it frequently will). Lopez’s interior defense issues are only compounded by the player he will often be paired with in the frontcourt. By field goal percentage, Thad Young rated as the worst rim protector of any frontcourt player who played at least 50 games last year, allowing 60 percent of the shots he defended at the rim to go in.3
This isn’t good. This is especially not good when Lopez and Young have to share the court with Jarrett Jack, Joe Johnson, and Bojan Bogdanovic, three guys who work hard and mean well but are nowhere near quick enough to keep pace with the majority of backcourt starters in the league. As New York Post writer Tim Bontemps noted in his defensive assessment of the Nets’ first preseason game:
Last year, when [the trio of Jack, Bogdanovic, and Johnson] was on the court together, the Nets were outscored by 62 points in the 478 minutes they were on the court, and had a defensive rating of 114.5 points per 100 possessions — a number so bad, it would have been nearly five points per 100 possessions worse than the worst defense in the league (Minnesota).
Those attempts around the rim will likely rise, and if the past is any precedent, it’s going to be a nightly slaughter.
Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images
The Brooklyn Nets are a story of grand construction in all of its fits and starts. This season’s iteration is the unfortunate result of a lofty experiment unceremoniously halted, stuck in development hell. The team’s move to Brooklyn coincided with the billion-dollar Barclays Center project. The inaugural home game at Barclays in 2012 was scheduled to pit the crosstown rivals Nets and Knicks against one another, a grandiose gesture that was called off by New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg because of Hurricane Sandy. These days, the advertising panes outside Barclays, in front of subway entrances, and along walkways feature another team new to Brooklyn: the New York Islanders. Up on the JumboTron, five Nets players were introduced at the Islanders’ Barclays debut; they were all booed. The Nets are a story of aspiration dispassionately managed, because every Nets story — past, present, and future — will always come back to Mikhail Prokhorov.
In 2010, Prokhorov purchased 80 percent of the team for $223 million. For the 2013-14 season, he spent $190 million on team salary and luxury taxes alone in what could be seen as a historically sound business practice (overloading a system with money with the expectation that success would come bursting out like candy out of a piñata). That yielded the most successful and most disappointing team of their brief history in Brooklyn and $144 million in total basketball costs down the drain. Once you get over how much money that is, it honestly might be the most impressive thing he’s done with the franchise. And he did it all without flinching.
At the end of that season — one in which the Nets hobbled to an Eastern Conference semifinal finish after entering the championship contenders discussion with offseason power moves — Prokhorov issued a brief closing statement. “It made for a thrilling spring,” he noted, trying to put into context the injuries, chemistry issues, and bizarrely effective necromancy that unfurled over 82 games. You could imagine him saying the exact same thing about the first time he’d landed a backflip on his beloved Jet Ski. The only difference between an NBA franchise and a backflip is $190 million. Which is to say, for Prokhorov, nothing at all.
Prokhorov spent the second day of last month’s training camp in the gym, extolling the virtues of the Tibetan martial art of Tescao and showing off all the parlor tricks that apparently come with it. It was a legitimately incredible display of core strength and coordination, and I still have no idea what to make of it. The meeting had nothing to do with basketball, and you get the feeling that was his intent. He could have simply given a short, disaffected pep talk to the team and fallen back into the shadows, but instead he chose to help the team activate new ways of thinking — about hand-eye coordination, about their immediate future.
If Prokhorov can still be excited about the Nets after they’ve cost him hundreds of millions, the team can get excited about each other and move past all the talk of this being a lost season. If the Nets could go 0-for-82 and Jay Z can still look at you like shit’s gravy, why can’t the team adopt a similar Panglossian mind-set? The scale of expectations has changed dramatically, but Prokhorov (and his money) still provides what he did before: optimism.
But things were different when he’d made his grand entrance into the league. He was free to be fearless, reckless in uncharted waters. Now, five years have come and gone with nothing to show for it. Championships were the ultimate goal back then. During the Nets’ media day last month, general manager Billy King admitted that the biggest goal this offseason was getting below the luxury tax line. “And we did that,” King said.
Mission accomplished. It’s going to be a long season.