NBA Free Agency 2012: Dwight Howard Trade Dies, but Brooklyn Nets Will Survive

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NBA Free Agency 2012: Dwight Howard Trade Dies, but Brooklyn Nets Will Survive
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Now that talks have ended between the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets about trading Dwight Howard, there's sure to be a group of pitchfork-wielding Nets fans out there calling for general manager Billy King's head.

Dreams of a Deron Williams-Joe Johnson-Howard Big Three can do that to a person.

There's no question that adding Howard would have sent a chill down the rest of the NBA's spines, as the Williams-Howard pairing would be the best one-five combination in the league.

Add in Johnson, a perennial All-Star who's more than used to creating his own shots, and Brooklyn's Big Three would have challenged the Miami Heat's trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for the best of the NBA.

Even without Howard, though, the Nets have still set themselves up to be one of the strongest threats to Miami's reign over the rest of the Eastern Conference.

 It all starts with Williams, who'll remind everyone this summer with Team USA just how talented he is. Last February, the Nets swooped in and stole Williams from Utah before the dust had settled on the Knicks' trade for Carmelo Anthony, paving the way for their big moves this summer.

Along with Chris Paul and Derrick Rose, Williams is a top three NBA point guard whose pass-first mentality doesn't preclude him from lighting up teams regularly. He's one of the rare players who can routinely average 20 points and 10 assists per game without blinking.

He's been mired in mediocrity for the past 18 months, causing him to slip off the national radar a bit, but his franchise-record 57-point explosion this past February served as a welcome reminder of his place among the NBA's elite players (even if it did come against the hold-your-nose-awful Charlotte Bobcats).

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The Nets' rise to contender status all started with Deron Williams.

The Nets wouldn't have been able to re-sign Williams to a five-year, $98 million contract this summer if not trading with the Atlanta Hawks for Johnson, the point guard said recently.

The four years and $90 million remaining on Johnson's contract may be a hard pill to swallow for some Nets fans, but if Mikhail Prokhorov's okay with paying that luxury tax bill, who's to stop him? (What was that lockout business about last summer, by the way...?)

There's no denying Johnson's talent, even at age 31. Last season, Johnson averaged 18.8 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.8 assists and nearly a steal per game, shooting 38.8 percent from three-point range (his highest percentage since 2004-05) and 45.4 percent from the field.

That was with Jeff Teague as his starting point guard.

When Al Horford went down with a season-ending injury earlier in the year, the offensive burden for the Hawks fell on the shoulders of Johnson and teammate Josh Smith.

Suffice it to say, with Williams as a teammate, he should expect a huge uptick in open looks.

The Nets' backcourt will be the team's greatest strength, but its frontcourt isn't shaping up to be too shabby, even without Howard's presence.

After the Nets acquired Gerald Wallace in the middle of March, he went on to post averages of 15.2 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.7 blocks in 16 games, shooting 38.5 percent from deep.

He, too, should only expect more open shots due to the presence of his new All-Star backcourt.

Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
You can do much worse than Brook Lopez as a third or fourth option on a team.

The four-year, $60 million extension for center Brook Lopez, who the team drafted 10th overall back in 2008, won't have anyone mistaking him for Howard anytime soon.

Still, at only 24 years old, his career PER of 19.2 exceeds each of the career PERs of Williams (19.1), Wallace (17.4) and Johnson (16.4). Johnson posted a PER of 11.8 in his rookie season with Boston and Phoenix; Lopez managed a 17.9.

There's been much ado made about Lopez's statistical rebounding deficiencies, having only averaged 6 rebounds per game in the 2010-11 season, and only 3.6 per game in the limited action he saw this past year.

Not-so-coincidentally, the past two years, he's been competing with teammate Kris Humphries, who's ranked fifth in rebounds per game in each of the past two seasons. Before Humphries' arrival in New Jersey, Lopez averaged a relatively respectable 8.6 boards per game in the 2009-10 season.

His career averages of 17.4 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.6 blocks per game suggest that even if Lopez never develops into a prototypical 20-10 player, he'll still be more than sufficient as a third (or even fourth) option on offense.

No matter what the team decides to do with Humphries this summer, the addition of rebounding maven Reggie Evans in a sign-and-trade with the L.A. Clippers will leave the Nets relatively covered on the glass.

Throw in the signing of Bosnian forward Mirza Teletovic, a 6'9", 26-year-old sharpshooter who averaged 22 points, 6 rebounds, and 43 percent from deep in the Euroleague this past season, and the Nets have one of the stronger cores (on paper) in the league.

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Second-year guard MarShon Brooks, who took over 11 shots per game last season, and rookie Tyshawn Taylor from Kansas will round out the backcourt for the Nets, along with veteran guard Jerry Stackhouse.

As of today, yes, Miami would still be favored over Brooklyn in a seven-game playoff series. It's a much harder series to call if you theoretically swap out Lopez for Howard, admittedly.

A lot can happen in the next nine months, though.

The Chicago Bulls looked like serious championship contenders this past season until Derrick Rose tore his ACL in the first game of the playoffs. The Heats' championship run was almost derailed by Bosh's abdominal strain.

And there's no guarantee Howard won't still be on the Orlando roster come January 15, when Lopez will once again be trade-eligible.

Decry the name of Billy King all you'd like, but he's managed his way through a masterful offseason, Howard or not.

Brooklyn can be just fine without Superman.  

They've got their own version in Williams.

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