Why Brooklyn Nets' Huge Expectations Fall on Brook Lopez's Shoulders

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Why Brooklyn Nets' Huge Expectations Fall on Brook Lopez's Shoulders
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
The bigger, bulkier Brook Lopez must carry more weight in 2013-14.

It is clear a Deron Williamsreturn to form and his apprentice-mentor relationship with Jason Kidd are critical links in the Brooklyn Nets’ chain of title expectations in 2013-14.

The same goes for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce infusing a hard-nosed identity and championship attitude into the franchise.

What about making the case for Brook Lopez's link?

Given the above, how far could the Nets go without their big man if he didn’t continue his trajectory into one of the premier centers in the league?

Not very. A lot of things need to go right to win that ring. It all has to click—not just from three of 15 players.

If Williams again succumbs to ankle woes or authority problems—or plays in his too often typically underachieving manner—expect another early postseason boot.

If Garnett, Pierce or both are rundown shadows of themselves come May, it will be difficult for Brooklyn to go bucket-for-bucket or blow-for-blow with the likes of Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks, Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers and LeBron James’ Miami Heat.

If Lopez falters, the Nets’ outlook is equally problematic.

Ned Dishman/Getty Images
The four links to an NBA title: Brook Lopez, Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams and Paul Pierce.

Brooklyn can’t win the Eastern Conference, much less an NBA crown, without Lopez putting on another career turn at least as good as last year’s 19.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG and 2.1 BPG. The Nets will need even more from the center position this time around, particularly off the boards, if they want to get past any of the East’s other four contenders.

If Lopez is unhealthy and his minutes played are spotty, Brooklyn has an issue much like it does with Williams at the No. 1: no formidable, natural backup.

At point guard, Williams has below-average journeyman Shaun Livingston and the still, very green Tyshawn Taylor lined up on the bench. Jason Terry might find himself in this mix. He’s more than a slight upgrade over the other two, but the repercussions leave shooting guard thin.

The situation at center is a little deeper. Andray Blatche’s numbers don’t come close to All-Star caliber, but he is capable of holding the fort, patching infrequent spells to rest a healthy or ailing Lopez during the regular season.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports
Andray Blatche has some game, but not enough.

Behind Blatche is rookie Mason Plumlee, the 22nd pick out of Duke. But Nets’ GM Billy King told the Blue Devil Network in this interview that Plumlee will need “a lot” of D-League Development. “He’ll have a chance” and “if the option arises, he’ll get to play for us.”

Blatche makes the cut of “scary”—meaning good—backups who give the Nets what Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes calls the fourth best bench in the NBA.

But his all-time best (2010-11) of 16.8 PPG and 8.2 RPG in 63 games started was a rare season and falls short of Lopez’ best years so far, and far short of Brook’s potential on a team where Garnett and Pierce will be keeping defenses busy.

In Dime Mag’s rankings of the best centers in the NBA, John Friel comments on Lopez:

Lopez, who finished with the fifth-highest PER in the NBA last season at 24.7, averaged at least 18 points for a fourth consecutive season and is one of the few centers in today’s game who is truly worth defending every single possession…he is a lethal offensive threat anywhere within 20 feet of the rim.

Lopez's defense, though not the best, took a big step in 2012-13 and is beyond Blatche’s, too.

Frequently criticized for being soft, Brook put on 15 pounds and looks poised to up his physical play.

He’s already more durable than most. Outside the year off with a broken foot (2011-12), Lopez gets an “A” for attendance, playing in 98 percent and starting 96 percent of his team's games over his four full seasons.

We’re talking a lifetime 33.2 MPG and as high as 36.9 MPG and 35.2 MPG over 82 games each in 2009-10 and 2010-11.

And on this team—the oldest in the league—that counts for a lot, perhaps as much as scoring and rebounding. If this team is going to perform at the pounding level needed in this year’s playoffs, it’s going to need fresh legs.

This is a behind-the-scoring, behind-the-rebounds critical link in the Nets' chain of success. Lopez needs to remain healthy and consume minutes—at least 30 and as many as 35 a game again.

Shortly after the postseason, Lopez quietly had surgery to the foot that kept him out a full season.

There are collateral consequences to Lopez missing time or failing to play up to his now-higher and expected standards—outside a prerequisite hot stat line of near 20 PPG and 8-10 RPG, with a few blocks and a steal—outside of Blatche stepping up.

Minutes and production lost at center will have to be picked up by the 37-year-old Garnett and 36-year-old Pierce, along with the bench.

Williams’ game will also have to readjust to one aligned with scoring over assists again, which is not the plan.

Thankfully, it appears Lopez's foot problems are fully behind him.

Judging from his all-around strong preseason, this looks to be true.

The domino effect of a poor season from Lopez, or one spotted with his absence, ripples throughout the roster and game plan of the Brooklyn Nets

His link is just as critical as Garnett's, Pierce's and Williams' if this team wants to be champions in June.

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