The Brooklyn Nets roster that teased at greatness and bordered on ancient has just been torn apart by its lone rising star.
Brooklyn's leading scorer (20.7) and only starter under the age of 29 (25), Brook Lopez is now lost for the season with a broken foot, as first reported by Comcast SportsNet's Gary Tanguay:
NBA source tells me Brook Lopez of the Nets is done for the year. Broken foot. East continues to get worse. #celticstalk— Gary Tanguay (@Gary_Tanguay) December 21, 2013
Just like that, everything is over.
Mikhail Prokhorov's $190 million championship dream is finished. A storybook ending is no longer a possibility for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. A season that seemingly couldn't have gone any worse somehow did just that.
Unlike his teammates, though, Lopez's importance to this franchise extends well beyond the 2013-14 campaign. As bad as his loss stings now, it will only get worse with time.
New Season, Same Story
When Lopez is healthy, he's the one who makes things happen for the Nets.
He's the bridge of eras new and old for NBA bigs. With a soft shooting touch and high basketball IQ, Lopez is more than comfortable creating away from the basket, a recent requirement for elite centers. But with his size (7'0", 260 pounds), strength and footwork, he's a bully on the block with a nostalgic feel to his low-post dominance.
Per ESPN Stats & Info on Twitter:
Brook Lopez was averaging 1.16 points per play on post-ups this season. Only LeBron James had a higher average (min. 50 plays).— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 21, 2013
But that asterisk by his name is impossible to ignore. Injuries are all too familiar for the 7-footer, as pointed out by Tim Bontemps of the New York Post:
Nets say Brook Lopez has a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot. That's the third time he's suffered same injury in the same foot.— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) December 21, 2013
Unfortunately, this has been another way that Lopez has bridged NBA gaps.
The game's history books hold a number of cautionary tales regarding big bodies with bad wheels. Grantland's Bill Simmons and Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle weighed in:
Stunning Brook Lopez news. Loses 2 of 3 seasons. History isn't kind for young big guys missing seasons with recurring leg/foot injuries.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) December 21, 2013
Offered without comment, but hope it's just coincidence. Brook Lopez played 246 games first 3 seasons. Yao Ming played 244. After that...— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) December 21, 2013
B/R's injury expert Will Carroll said it's hardly a coincidence that the big man is once again battling foot problems:
Recurrence is relatively common and is the result of not changing. Maybe he can't. It could be something intrinsic—a bone weakness, the way he moves, something. I'm sure they're trying. This recalls Bill Walton for a lot of people, but fractures heal up. He isn't losing much mobility during the healthy interims.
The fifth metatarsal is the hardest to come back from. He'll use it to make lateral cuts and often takes more stress off stops, depending on foot strike. It's definitely a short- and long-term concern for Lopez.
For the first three seasons of his career, Lopez was a rarity, a lengthy iron man. He played 82 games in his rookie campaign (starting 75 of them), then played and started all 82 games in each of his next two seasons.
But a broken foot cost him the first 32 games of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. Five games after returning, an injured ankle (plus the team's brutal record) sent him to the sideline for good.
He managed 74 appearances last season but was back to being a regular on the team's injury report this season. Ankle problems limited his availability early on, and now this broken foot will cap his 2013-14 game total at just 17.
Where Lopez goes from here is anyone's guess, but history is clearly not on his side.
Yet Lopez's future actually looks brighter than that of his franchise. The Nets mortgaged theirs in pursuit of a championship, a plan that needed a dreamlike sequence of events but instead brought an unending series of nightmares.
Going From Bad to Worse
It was all too apparent that a best-case outcome wasn't in Brooklyn's cards. This has never looked like a championship contender since the games started to count.
It started with an opening-night loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, continued four nights later with a 21-point rout by the rebuilding Orlando Magic, and kept trending in the wrong direction from there.
A three-game losing streak came shortly thereafter. After halting that skid with an overtime win over the Phoenix Suns on Nov. 15, the Nets found themselves notching nine more entries into the loss column over their next 11 outings.
The wheels were clearly off, probably never attached in the right way to begin with.
First-year coach Jason Kidd tried stealing a win with a conveniently timed—and ultimately costly—spilled soda; however, it wasn't enough to keep his team from dropping a five-point loss to the Kobe Bryant-less Los Angeles Lakers.
A job re-assignment transformed Kidd's lead assistant Lawrence Frank into one of the world's highest-paid paper pushers. That hasn't really helped. Brooklyn was 5-12 with Frank on the sidelines and is 4-5 since his banishment.
But none of those losses hurt as badly as this one, as clearly expressed by David Aldridge of NBA.com:
Devastating news re: Brook Lopez. Devastating. Nets can't replace him; their edge coming into the season was their size across the front.— David Aldridge (@daldridgetnt) December 21, 2013
This is more than a knockout blow. There is no official to step in and stop the carnage.
An already reeling franchise just got dropped to the canvas, but these blows will keep on coming.
Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News summed things up:
Brooklyn's situation: they have no cap space until 2016, they don't have their own first-round pick until 2019.— Stefan Bondy (@NYDNInterNets) December 21, 2013
Alarm sirens can keep blaring through the Brooklyn streets. Help still isn't coming.
The Nets have nine figures invested in 2013-14 salary commitments alone, which says nothing of their unprecedented luxury-tax bill. They put a one-year championship window around themselves, according to ESPN New York's Ohm Youngmisuk, but their financial books don't reflect that view. Brooklyn has more than $80 million tied up in 2014-15's payroll, via ShamSports.com, and as much as $64 million committed for the following season.
Brooklyn's next five first-round picks belong to either the Atlanta Hawks or the Boston Celtics. While other franchises are salivating over freshman phenoms Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) and Jabari Parker (Duke), the Nets might be scouring for talent in middle school gyms.
The roster is old, injured and, based on what we've seen, just not very good.
Lopez was supposed to be the exception. Then again, the Nets were supposed to be title contenders.
Things aren't always as they seem.
White Flags Waving
Scrapping the 2013-14 season isn't a novel idea. With the help that's coming in next year's draft, some fans have been embracing the loss column like never before.
But the Nets' sacrifice is different.
This isn't an evolving plan, no welcoming of storm clouds as the sun sits on the horizon.
This is simply the absence of hope. A complete and utter collapse. A championship window closed, locked and boarded up.
Brooklyn assembled a star-studded supporting cast, but there's no way to replace the leading man in this feature. Lopez was the backbone at both ends of the floor, the bailout option when everything else went wrong. If the offense was disjointed, which if often was, then a toss to the big man could get it back on track. If the defense collapsed, which it often did, Lopez held it together with his intimidating rim protection.
For a franchise juggling hope with worry, optimism with fear, dreams with adversity, Lopez was the certainty keeping Brooklyn's glass half full.
But his season-ending injury just knocked that glass over, the shattered remnants of it staining the Barclays Center floor like his coach's beverage of choice.
The Nets aren't chasing after those scraps, either. There are no pieces for them to pick up. There won't be any for a very long time.