How Good Can Brooklyn Nets Be with a Healthy Brook Lopez?

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How Good Can Brooklyn Nets Be with a Healthy Brook Lopez?
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The names are still notable, and the payroll is still exorbitant, but the difference between this summer and last for the Brooklyn Nets feels massive.

Even with All-Star center Brook Lopez working his way back to the hardwood and Lionel Hollins grabbing the coaching reins, expectations have been dramatically lowered.

The Nets were painted as fringe championship contenders entering last season. This time around, some wonder if they can even claim one of the Eastern Conference's eight playoff berths.

Treading water is not an option. Sure, Brooklyn could come close to matching its 44-38 record, but it will have to rebrand itself first.

The Nets staved off disaster last season by adopting a small-ball attack in the wake of Lopez's season-ending foot fracture.

A brutal, at times embarrassing, 10-21 start to the 2013-14 campaign was erased over a furious 34-17 finish to the season. Former coach Jason Kidd sparked his team's resurgence with a smaller, more versatile lineup that produced a more potent offensive attack and better flexibility at the opposite side.

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Yet the turnaround was more damage control than a blueprint for future success. These Nets will look nothing like those ones.

Kidd's failed power move punched his ticket out of Brooklyn, while the veteran Hollins was called upon to assume the coaching seat. Small-ball catalysts Paul Pierce (Washington Wizards) and Shaun Livingston (Golden State Warriors) both sought greener pastures in free agency, leaving the cash-strapped Nets hoping for internal growth from an aging core.

Not everyone is convinced that possibility exists.

Then again, life outside of the spotlight could be exactly what this team needs.

Well, that and a welcome break from the injury bug. Regardless of how the Nets handled the rest of their roster, this group's ceiling has always been tied to the availability and productivity of Lopez and floor general Deron Williams.

Lopez missed 65 games last season, four more than he skipped during the 2011-12 campaign. Injuries kept Williams out of 18 contests, the third time in four seasons he sat out at least 11 games.

Lopez underwent surgeries on both his right foot and left ankle. Williams had procedures on both of his ankles, his latest attempt to correct a years-long struggle that has plagued both his stat sheet and his confidence.

"I used to step on the court and feel like I was the best player no matter who I played against, so I’ve got to get back to that," he told reporters in May. "Even if I’m not the best player on the court, I’ve got to feel like I am."

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The Nets need an active, aggressive Williams to compete for anything of substance, but it's hard to say just how good he can still be. Last season, his points (14.3), assists (6.1), rebounds (2.6) and minutes (32.2) all fell to their lowest levels since his rookie year.

There should be room to improve those numbers. However, with the 30-year-old battling both his body and Father Time, his days of serving as a franchise star could be limited.

That puts even more pressure on Lopez to reclaim his spot among the NBA's best bigs.

The 26-year-old said earlier this month that he's been "fully cleared for play and everything," per ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo, shedding light on Brooklyn's potential path up the conference standings.

Lopez is an incredibly skilled center. Before being shut down last season, he was putting up career bests in points (20.7) and field-goal percentage (56.3).

"He's probably the best center right now in the NBA," Nets forward Andrei Kirilenko said, per Newsday's Roderick Boone. "[A] center who's got skills on offense and defense and got a deep variety of options how he can seek his offense in the post."

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In order to maximize his production, Lopez needs a system carefully crafted around him. The offense has to move at a controlled pace so the 7-footer has time to establish prime position on the low block.

Despite the success Brooklyn found by thinking outside the box last season, Lopez's potential post production demands a return to a more traditional setup.

"The former All-Star averaged a 1.16 points per postup play before his injury last season, a figure that would've ranked him No. 1 among NBA centers if carried out over a full season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required)," noted Bleacher Report's Fred Katz.

Not only do the Nets need Lopez's offense—they finished a middling 14th in offensive efficiency last season, per NBA.com—but they're also equipped to complement him well.

They aren't looking to run. They played at the sixth-slowest pace after the All-Star break last season, per NBA.com, long after Lopez was removed from the equation. Considering the age of this roster, that tempo is more likely to decrease if it moves in either direction.

The Nets also have shooters to pull defenders away from the paint (36.9 three-point percentage in 2013-14, 11th overall), along with a coach who understands how to utilize this type of weapon. Hollins' last coaching stop was with the Memphis Grizzlies, where he took full advantage of the interior talents of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

That experience should help Hollins enjoy a smooth transition with his new interior anchor.

"There's a lot of different styles that are conducive to Brook," Hollins said, per Boone. "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."

Lopez will be used as a franchise-type talent because that will be his functional role.

Even without Pierce and Livingston, the Nets still have the on-paper talent to compete for a low-level playoff spot. But considering the money invested in this core, plus the way the East has opened up this summer, the Nets should be hoping for so much more.

If the Nets stay healthy, how many games can they win in 2014-15?

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Brooklyn won't compete for a championship crown this season. Given the money and future assets that have been sacrificed to put this team together, a full rebuild may be needed to fashion this as a full-fledged contender.

But the Nets could still make noise out East with a healthy Lopez leading the way. Maybe not conference title-type noise, but Brooklyn could force its way into a top-six seed and serve as a tough playoff out.

For as little as this summer has seemed to have in common with the last one, the conclusion to this story may well sound awfully familiar.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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