With Brook Lopez out for the season following the third broken foot of his injury-plagued NBA career, the Brooklyn Nets are in big trouble—bigger trouble than they've ever experienced during a horrific beginning to the 2013-14 season.
As reported by the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy, the All-Star center fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot during the overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, and sources reveal that he'll miss the rest of the year.
All of a sudden, the Nets are left scrambling. They were already trying to figure out how to win games with Lopez holding down the fort at center, and now the process gets even more difficult—hopeless, even.
Sam Amick, calling the team the Brooklyn Nyets in his USA Today article, claims, "There's no way back from this series of surreal and unfortunate events—no matter how much Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov spends."
The short-term impact and long-term blows of this injury are both quite problematic.
The Nets are suddenly left without any solid options at center as they try to shore up a putrid defense and lackluster offense. Deron Williams said after losing to the Sixers, via NBA.com, "We need to turn it around. We've been talking about it for a while. We just need to go out and do it."
Well, it gets even harder to do that following the injury. It may remain just talk now that there is a dearth of starting centers on the roster.
There are two main candidates to replace Lopez, but neither is particularly appealing when trying to fill in for an All-Star big man who had emerged as one of the top offensive options in the entire NBA, regardless of position.
It's tough to imagine Kevin Garnett starting at center, even if he did that throughout the 2012-13 season while playing with the Boston Celtics. According to Basketball-Reference, he spent 83 percent of his minutes at the 5, which was the highest number since the site starting tracking position splits in 2000.
It worked last year because Garnett was surrounded by other solid defensive players and playing for a coach he trusted in a system he knew. The difference in passion has been quite evident during the 2013-14 campaign, and asking KG to bang around in the paint on a consistent basis simply wouldn't be conducive to success.
Already plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, Garnett can't afford to play center too often for Brooklyn. He already avoids the rim, and that's the only thing keeping him relatively intact.
According to NBA.com's SportVU data, 70 players are facing more shots per game at the rim. While Garnett is faring well against the ones he faces, holding opponents to 44.3 percent shooting, he's also actively avoided putting himself in such situations.
For comparison's sake, Lopez faced 9.1 shots per game at the rim and shut down opponents to the tune of 40.1 percent shooting.
Andray Blatche can actually provide offense from the center position, and that makes him the most intriguing replacement in the starting lineup.
Although he tends to play power forward more often than center, Blatche has made some spot starts at the 5, and he's fared fairly well. In those five games, he's averaged 13.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists per contest, shooting 49.1 percent from the field in the process.
Blatche is the best option to move into the starting five, simply because he can actually create his own looks. While KG's mid-range jumper has been strangely off during his first season calling the Barclays Center home, this redemption project continues to excel.
His turnaround jumpers and shots off the bounce would help replace some of what was lost when Lopez went down—certainly not all of it, but definitely some of it.
Reggie Evans and Mason Plumlee are both better-suited for smaller roles.
The former is a rebounding ace who can't play offense to save his life, and the latter is a raw rookie who has looked solid during limited action. It doesn't make sense for either to jump Garnett and Blatche in the depth chart, especially since depth is still needed.
That's the other big problem that pops up without Lopez in the lineup.
Someone has to replace his minutes, and that means that there's a domino effect. Everyone has to play a bigger role, which isn't a positive when you get to the end of the bench.
Jason Kidd will be left milking as much as he can get from Plumlee, for example, and it's tough to get a lot from a first-year big man. It's also tough for Kidd to do any milking.
Playoff Dreams Might Be Over
Brooklyn may actually have the ability to go out and add one more player, whether it's a guard, forward or center. According to ESPN's Marc Stein, there's a chance that the team could get the disabled player exception:
Indications are Nets will explore applying for Disabled Player Exception after losing Brook Lopez to yet another sad foot injury— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 21, 2013
It's not exactly the most commonly used exception, so I'll forgive you if you've never heard of this one.
Fortunately, Larry Coon's marvelous CBA FAQ has that covered: If granted because a player is unlikely to play again that season, the team can sign a player for "50 percent of the disabled player's salary or the amount of the Non-Taxpayer Mid-Level exception, whichever is less." It can also trade for a player with salary restrictions, but that isn't the route normally taken.
So basically, the Nets—if the exception is even granted, which isn't a guarantee—can add one more cheap player to the mix from the lackluster list of available free agents.
That player isn't going to be a difference-maker for this beleaguered team, and the Nets are now desperately in need of one. After losing to the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn fell to 9-17 on the season, and there aren't many signs of an impending turnaround.
While the Nets had been playing much better basketball since the return of Williams, there's now all too much pressure on D-Will, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce to provide offense. Remember, Lopez was scoring 20.7 points per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the field when he was lost for the season.
That's not easy production to replace, and it takes away one of Kidd's staple offensive plays: Throw the ball in to BroLo in the post and hope for the best.
The short-term impact of this injury simply can't be overstated, as the Nets are losing not only their best and most consistent offensive player, but also one of the few quality defenders on the roster. Lopez has earned that "quality" status after two years of improvements.
Climbing back into the playoff picture was already going to be tough for Brooklyn, even in the remarkably weak Eastern Conference, one in which 35 wins might very well earn the No. 8 seed in the postseason. It's even tougher now, and it may well be impossible.
It gets worse. The long-term prognosis is even harder to deal with than the short-term problems.
There's a reason that B/R's Zach Buckley ranked the Lopez injury as the second-most devastating injury of the 2013-14 season, trailing only Derrick Rose's torn meniscus. As Buckley wrote, the impact of the injury goes well beyond being "the knockout blow" for this go-round:
This is the twice in three seasons that Lopez has lost a year to a foot injury. In fact, it's the third time the seven-footer has suffered the same injury in the same foot. The basketball gods have not treated big men with foot/leg problems well before; it's scary, but unavoidable to think that Lopez could be facing a similar fate.
Still, it gets worse. The 25-year-old is the only piece the Nets have to lead them into the future. Brooklyn is two offseasons away from financial relief and doesn't own a first-round pick in 2019.
First, who are those other big men? As Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News points out, Yao Ming, Bill Walton, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Sam Bowie are all previous examples of big men whose promising careers have been derailed by recurring foot injuries.
And yes, you should be concerned about reinjury for Lopez.
Not only is this the third injury to the same foot, but it's also a specific malady that isn't guaranteed to hold up over time if and when it returns to full strength. Will Carroll, B/R's leading injury expert, made that perfectly clear in an email:
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 of stops, depending on foot strike. It's definitely a short- and long-term concern for Lopez.
So Lopez, if he's even healthy, is going to have to change his style of movement in order to stay healthy. Or he's just doomed to reinjure it again at some point thanks to inherent bone weakness.
That's not a set of sentences you typically want to read about your team's franchise player, especially when the finances prevent you from having a realistic shot at acquiring another one anytime soon.
Let's assume that the Nets don't make the playoffs.
If that's the case, they still don't get a lottery pick. The Hawks would switch picks with them in the stacked 2014 NBA draft thanks to the Joe Johnson trade, and then the new one would be handed right over to the Boston Celtics. Then they'll have to swap with the Hawks again in 2015, and they don't have any second-round picks either year.
There's no hope of adding new quality players in the draft, and the same can be said about free agency.
According to ShamSports.com, the Nets have $88,825,589 committed going into the 2014-15 season, and the number drops to $64,097,401 for 2015-16. That first number is without Paul Pierce on the books, and the second comes with only Johnson, Williams, Lopez, Plumlee and Mirza Teletovic accounted for.
How exactly does general manager Billy King scrounge up enough money to add anyone?
Will the Nets make the playoffs without blowing up this roster?
He doesn't, and the Nets are doomed to filling up the roster with minimum-contract players. They were banking on their core working, and it hasn't. Worse yet, it's going to get worse as Johnson, Garnett and Pierce (if he re-signs instead of retiring) age and Lopez struggles to return/change his playing style following the latest injury.
Barring an unforeseen breakout from the veteran players on the roster, Brooklyn has suddenly been thrust into an even more hopeless place than ever before.
At this point, you can't blame Nets fans if they're sitting back and bracing themselves for the next brutal blow.