Then last season actually happened, and then this offseason began happening.
Now the Nets, with last year's ballyhooed blueprint unraveling, find their future well-being hitched to one player rather than five: Brook Lopez.
Lack of Options
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Not even close. The Nets traded for Deron Williams in 2011, Joe Johnson in 2012 and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in 2013 to avoid situations like these, where the outlook—however positive or negative—rests on one player.
Quickly, and not at all quietly, the Nets have wound up where they didn't want to be. Pierce, Jason Kidd and Shaun Livingston are gone. Williams is coming off the worst season of his professional career since he was a rookie. Johnson is on the wrong side of 33. Garnett is now 38.
Brooklyn does not have a discernible building block—other than Lopez.
Still only 26, Lopez is a one-time All-Star with the ceiling to headline Brooklyn's future. But only if he's healthy.
Over the last three seasons, he's missed 139 of a possible 230 regular-season games. Last year, he only mustered 17 appearances before foot and ankle issues ended his campaign, spurring flashbacks to 2011-12, when he missed 61 of 66 contests with similar injuries.
Lopez needs to be healthy for the Nets to move forward, and for the time being, he is.
"I was fully cleared for play and everything about a week and a half ago now," he told reporters on Monday. "Now it's time to get back in shape."
And then stay in shape. And then stay healthy.
Otherwise, the Nets will perish.
They need the 20.7 points, six rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game he was averaging before going down last year. They need the player who missed only eight contests in 2012-13. They need his potential longevity.
That's the biggest part of this: continuity.
The Nets won't find lasting contributions in the aging Johnson and Garnett, and it's become clear they cannot count on Williams for anything besides heartache and the occasional outing that fools the masses into believing maybe, quite possibly, he's finally back.
After them, the Nets have Mason Plumlee, Mirza Teletovic and Bojan Bogdanovic—all promising prospects, none of whom figure to be the focal point of any rebuild.
The Nets are also devoid of valuable draft picks. According to RealGM, the next time they'll own their first-round pick free and clear is 2019.
All futures, all rebuilds, start with a star. Lopez, when healthy, is that star for the Nets.
The D-Will Factor
When Lopez is on the floor, there's even hope that Williams can regain his on-court swagger.
Look out at how he fared alongside Lopez per 36 minutes in 2012-13, when the two played 71 games together:
|BroLo's Impact on D-Will|
|2012-13||PTS||FG%||3P%||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net. Rtg.|
If that's the impact a healthy Lopez can have on a healthy Williams, the Nets are in business. If Lopez is healthy, he can be the Nets' No. 1 option and linchpin. If he's healthy, the Nets have a cornerstone to build around.
If, if, if. Everything about Lopez comes with an if, and like the New York Post's Tim Bontemps pointed out in May, the Nets need him to remove said if:
The surgery Lopez underwent to alleviate the repeated issues he’s had with his right foot was serious, and Nets general manager pointed to former Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas as a terrific success story in a similar situation. Ilgauskas is on one side of the spectrum – having played 11 seasons after undergoing his surgery – and Yao Ming is on the other, playing just five regular-season games after undergoing his own complicated foot surgery before being forced to retire.
If Lopez’s situation mirrors that of Ilgauskas, he has a chance to be the kind of long-term franchise mainstay he looked to be heading into last season, when he seemed well on his way to re-writing the Nets’ record book.
That is, in fact, how important Lopez is to the Nets.
When he was on the floor in 2012-13, they scored like a top-six offensive team, compared to a bottom-13 squad without. Without him for most of last season, they ranked a middling 14th in offensive efficiency and Team Rankings indicates they finished 24th in points scored in the paint.
This a guy who can be what the Nets didn't have last year. His inside-out game is rare for a 7-footer, rendering him someone an entire offense can be built around.
According to Newsday's Roderick Boone, new Nets head coach Lionel Hollins has already committed to structuring Brooklyn's offensive attack around Lopez:
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.
Put simply, the Nets lost a star. They lost a star who appeared to be tracking toward superstardom. They lost a star who can perhaps give them a two-superstar core.
They lost a star they need back.
Capped out, their draft pick well dry and their personnel infrastructure lacking a fortunes-turning talent, the Nets have no other options outside Lopez. We know this—we've established this.
Where does that leave the Nets if Lopez cannot stay healthy?
Then April or May will come, and the Nets will watch the late rounds of the playoffs from the same place as you or I—from a couch. That’s not what Pierce and Garnett were brought to Brooklyn for. That’s not why Kirilenko was pried away from a more lucrative contract with Minnesota. That’s not why Kidd sent assistant coach Lawrence Frank to his room over philosophical differences. The goal was a title. As long as a title was the remotest of possibilities, every dollar spent and coaching blunder made was tolerable. With that goal lost, nothing is tolerable except a fire sale.
Circumstances haven't changed for the better since then. They're worse if Lopez is precluded from contributing.
The Nets won't make noise in the Eastern Conference without him, having already incurred so much loss this offseason. All they could hope for, at best, is more of the same—intermittent surges culminating in a lower-seeded playoff berth and early postseason exit.
A healthy Lopez can thrust the Nets back into relevancy. Are they good enough to win a title? No, but they're good enough to contend in the Eastern Conference.
More importantly, they have something and someone to look forward to.
Free agency—specifically 2016's free agency—remains the Nets' quickest means of improvement. The New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy suggests it's a means they plan to exploit:
The long-term outlook is focused on free agency in 2016, when the Nets will finally have enough cap relief to go after the big names.
The biggest name, of course, will be Kevin Durant, assuming he does the prudent thing and opts out of his contract with the Thunder. He has always been Brooklyn’s target, even before the high-scoring forward switched agents to Nets enthusiast Jay Z.
Courting superstars becomes much easier with a healthy Lopez, assuming the Nets retain him. The then-35-year-old Johnson won't be a selling point. Nor will a 32-year-old Williams entering the last year of his contract, no matter how well he's playing at the time.
Stars rarely agree to help redefine an entire organization on their own through free agency. If teams aren't planning on drafting or trading for one, they need a star already in place. The Nets won't be drafting or trading for anyone significant over the next few years.
They need Lopez. A healthy, productive, superstardom-bound Lopez.
Both their immediate potential and forthcoming intentions depend on it.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise cited.