There was a time in which Deron Williams and Brook Lopez were viewed as one of the NBA's top duos. But instead of playoff runs and perennial All-Star appearances, both of them have become staples on the Brooklyn Nets’ sidelines in recent years.
Combined, the two missed 83 games last season. While Williams was in and out of the lineup with recurring ankle issues, Lopez was nursing a broken foot after just 17 contests.
When healthy, Williams and Lopez are top-tier players at their respective positions. But neither of the two has been able to shake the never-ending health concerns that have plagued them for the past few years.
According to Nets general manager Billy King per NBA.com, D-Will had surgery on both of his ankles this summer and should be ready to go by the time training camp rolls around. Lopez’s offseason recovery is moving along smoothly, too.
Williams and Lopez are both very important to Brooklyn. But whose well-being holds more weight?
The Case for Williams
When Livingston packed up and left Brooklyn for that sweet California sun, he took more than just 8.3 points, 3.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds with him to the Golden State Warriors. He took a good portion of Brooklyn’s stability.
Williams was fighting through ankle pain for nearly all of last season. The 30-year-old received multiple cortisone shots, and his lack of durability resulted in the lowest scoring and assists numbers since his rookie year.
Livingston was always ready to run the point when Williams went down. He also relieved No. 8 of some of his ball-handling responsibilities and lightened the burden of single-handedly running an NBA offense.
But Livingston won’t be there for Williams next season.
That puts more pressure on D-Will and, much to Brooklyn’s dismay, more pressure on those ankles.
The Nets swung a trade for Jarrett Jack this summer, and that will bolster an already strong second unit. But Jack is a true backup point guard, and it’s unlikely that he’ll be able to share the court with Williams like Livingston did.
A healthy, All-Star-caliber campaign from D-Will could put the Nets in the top half of the Eastern Conference.
Could the same be said for Lopez? That sure wasn’t the case last season, at least according to his former coach. After winning his second Coach of the Month award, Jason Kidd pointed to 7-footer’s injury as the turning point in the Nets’ 2013-14 season.
Here’s what Kidd told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:
I think [Lopez's] injury is something that changed the whole landscape of who we were trying to be. When you look at with Brook in, we were trying to play through Brook, play inside-out. But now with Brook out, we went with what you guys call a small lineup, even though Joe Johnson is just as big as anyone and he's our post player -- or Deron (Williams) or Shaun (Livingston). So we just kind of changed the face of who we play inside and now we've given guys who weren't getting a lot of attempts at the 3. That's probably the thing that has changed with the Nets is that we shuffled different guys and with Paul (Pierce) playing the stretch (power forward), we kind of found our identity at that point.
Despite Lopez’s team-high scoring average of 20.7 last season, Kidd's point was valid—the Nets got better shortly after Lopez went down. Brooklyn’s record prior to Lopez’s injury was 9-17, and its record afterward was 35-21.
The modern NBA is dominated by point guards, and running an offense through the low post is becoming increasingly rare. For that reason alone, the Nets may be counting on Williams next season more than they ever have before.
The Case for Lopez
That’s great news for Lopez.
Hollins is a genuine old-school coach. And old-school coaches love big guys.
There's a lot of different styles that are conducive to Brook. We had Zach and Marc, who are both post-up players, so that was their style. Brook will certainly get his touches in the paint, he'll be out on the court at the elbow, he'll be in pick-and-rolls. It's just the nature of the way the game is changing and shaping.
But certainly, if we need to go inside, we're going inside and he'll be one of the main guys that gets the ball.
It’s unlikely that Hollins goes the route that Kidd chose and starts Jack alongside Williams. Given the brand of coach and restructured roster, the Nets would be wise to run a sizable portion of sets through Lopez on the inside with Joe Johnson as the team’s primary offensive threat.
Williams is definitely a key piece of the puzzle, but the Nets were just fine without him last season.
When D-Will was sidelined for five straight games in early January with—you guessed it—a bad ankle, Brooklyn surged.
The Nets rattled off four wins in his absence, and then continued thriving when Kidd relegated Williams to a short-term bench role. Brooklyn won three of its next five, setting the tone for a strong playoff push that saw the Nets become one of the league’s top teams after New Year’s.
During his first three professional seasons, Lopez played every game—82 each year and 246 in total, all with perfect attendance. But since then, the six-year veteran has played just 94 out of a possible 230 contests—meaning Lopez has been on the sidelines for 136 contests since then.
Last season marked the 26-year-old's third foot surgery in a span of two years. How's that for alarming?
If Lopez plays next season in its entirety with a clean slate of health, he’ll re-emerge as one of the top centers in the game. But can the Nets count on him to be in the lineup on a nightly basis?
Both Williams and Lopez will be absolutely, 100 percent vital to Brooklyn’s success next season. If one of the two goes down with a significant injury, the Nets are going to be in a world of trouble.
The more important player, and the one whose health will affect Brooklyn more, is Williams.
Now, that’s not to discount everything that Lopez can bring to the table when he’s playing on two unfractured feet.
It’s just that a healthy Williams can do more for Brooklyn than a healthy Lopez can.
If D-Will’s ankle surgeries help his game get back to where it was during his days with the Utah Jazz, the Nets could be a contender in the East and beat out the Toronto Raptors for the Atlantic Division crown.
Brooklyn will count on Lopez to provide interior scoring and rebounding on both ends. But the team won’t live and die with him.
Williams, though, is the X-factor. Lopez will surely play a huge role in the Nets’ 2014-15 campaign, but it’s D-Will that will hold the power to swing Brooklyn from a fringe playoff squad to a legitimate threat to the top teams in the East.
All stats are accurate courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted.