Following a tumultuous start to the season, the Brooklyn Nets—winners of seven of their last 10—seem to have finally solidified their hold on an Eastern Conference playoff spot.
Along the way, the Nets have leveraged a unique rotational combination of size, length and veteran savvy to carve out something resembling a coherent identity.
More to the point, they’ve done most of it without All-Star center Brook Lopez.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
In an interview conducted by Complex magazine's Angel Diaz back in August, Lopez seemed to believe that the worst of his injury maladies were behind him:
How's the foot, man?
It's doing well, man. I actually lose the boot soon. Finally. Been waiting for that day.
It's something minor, right?
Yeah, nothing big. So they went in there, put a bigger screw in it, it was lucky honestly because I had no pain. I didn't have pain the whole time. And we caught it just because of the post-season x-ray. We saw the screw bent in there. We decided that was better to do something now before something real bad happens.
That could've led to something worse?
Something much worse. We needed a week after the season ended to get the most possible time to heal and let myself get back in shape and ready to go.
Sadly, the foot didn't hold up. That, coupled with Brooklyn's recent surge, naturally invites the question: With the trade deadline fast approaching, could Brooklyn actually consider parting with one of their best, youngest and most reasonably priced assets?
But the Nets have found an identity without [Lopez], and he’s a talented player with just two years left after this one ona fair contract. Brooklyn would have to at least consider calling, say, the Bobcats, a team that was ready to offer Lopez the max two summers ago, and dangling Lopez in exchange for Ben Gordon’s expiring deal and two first-round picks. Such a deal would place the Nets back on a more “normal” course and minimize their chances of paying the dreaded repeater tax in 2015-16.
By now, we all understand what Lowe means by “normal course”: Having parted with a slew of draft picks in the deal to land Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Nets put themselves in the precarious position of "win now or bust."
As in right now. As in this year.
In Lopez, the Nets have a player both proven and replete with upside—exactly the kind of asset that would help reverse at lease some of owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s cavalier gambits.
Lowe uses the Charlotte Bobcats as one example of a potential Brooklyn trade partner. But what are some others?
The Sacramento Kings get: Brook Lopez.
Brooklyn gets: Marcus Thornton, Ben McLemore.
The Kings are going nowhere fast. Shocking, we know. But Lopez at least gives the Kings some much-needed leverage vis-à-vis DeMarcus Cousins, who is slated to test restricted free agency this summer.
Should some team offer Cousins more than the Kings are willing to pay, they can rest easy knowing they have Lopez waiting in the wings. If the Cousins market ends up being weaker than expected, well, you can always sign or match Cousins on the cheap and deal him later, should he prove a bad fit with Lopez.
The Los Angeles Lakers get: Brook Lopez, Alan Anderson.
Brooklyn gets: Pau Gasol, a 2016 second-round pick.
The feeling is that, if the Lakers don’t get a deal for Gasol that they like, they’ll simply renounce him once his free agency kicks in this summer. But if they can land an All-Star center whose rights they can control heading into the next rebuild? They just might be willing to pull the trigger.
In Gasol, the Nets get a center with a dash more mobility and versatility—someone who could be a boon, in theory anyway, to the ball movement that Brooklyn emphasizes. More importantly, he can help the Nets right now.
That this deal will require both teams to shell out more near-term dough is almost irrelevant: Neither of the two ownerships has shown much concern for financial responsibility in the past, so why start now?
The Philadelphia 76ers get: Brook Lopez.
Brooklyn gets: Thaddeus Young, Evan Turner, 2015 second-round pick.
The Sixers have made no bones about their long-term agenda: Be very bad now for the sake of a brighter tomorrow. Losing two of their best players and getting back a guy who’s guaranteed to be out for the season fits into that plan, to say the least.
The X-factor here, of course, is Nerlens Noel, Philly’s injured—but highly talented—rookie center. Is Noel a legitimate center in waiting, or simply the next Hasheem Thabeet? It’s an impossible question with no real answer, at least at this point.
Even if Brooklyn doesn’t land a pick, they’ll at least be acquiring two young players on reasonable contracts whom they could either keep on the docket or deal, depending on the market.
To reiterate, these are just a few possibilities and, like any trade scenario, each presents its own fair share of perils and pitfalls.
But the underlying onus holds true: The best chance the Brooklyn Nets have of regaining some semblance of financial order hinges on what they’re able to do with the few liquid assets that they have.
In his five-plus years in the NBA, Brook Lopez has shown enough in the way of steady improvement to gloss over most concerns as to his long-term health—not all, but most.
It’s the kind of move that a team resigned to calling off the dogs this season might well be willing to consider—and one that the Nets absolutely must, mired as they are in their own cap-strapped quicksand.