BROOKLYN, New York — It's the morning of the Brooklyn Nets' home-court date with the Golden State Warriors. Brook Lopez is practicing three-pointers—looks he seldom attempted during games before this season.
He becomes visibly and vocally frustrated that more of his shots aren't finding the net.
That night, facing a Golden State squad that entered with the NBA's second-best defense, Lopez detonates for 23 points in the first half. He buries three of his seven long-range missiles and helps Brooklyn build a 16-point lead that would evaporate by the end of the third quarter.
Jump ahead to the Nets' Dec. 26 meeting with the Charlotte Hornets. Lopez catches the ball a few feet outside the paint, inside two minutes to play, with the game tied. He burns a couple of ticks backing down Cody Zeller.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist cheats about three steps off Sean Kilpatrick and toward the post. That's all Lopez needs; he wafts a one-handed pass to Kilpatrick, who has just enough daylight to drill a go-ahead three.
These are little things—understated anecdotes and contributions that often go unnoticed. In Lopez's case, though, they're tokens of commitment and evolution.
Even those spins might be unremarkable observations under normal circumstances. But Lopez is 28, playing for his umpteenth version of the Nets, with a foray into free agency scheduled for 2018—none of which is a typical precursor to reinvention. Nor is Brooklyn's latest iteration one any veteran, incumbent or new, would embrace wholesale.
On paper, Lopez and the team appear to have outgrown each other.
The Nets are in the early stages of an extensive rebuild and don't control the rights to their own draft pick until 2019. Lopez is their ticket to younger assets—a stud center who, at minimum, can land the team another prospect or future first-round pick, if not both.
After watching Brooklyn buy out Deron Williams (2015) and Joe Johnson (2016), then jettison Thaddeus Young to the Indiana Pacers ahead of last June's draft, Lopez has to know this. Part of him should feel like a trade is inevitable. If nothing else, enduring yet another rebuild could diminish his ties to the present and future of the only organization he's ever known.
Except it hasn't.
"I cannot speak highly enough of his engagement, his attitude, his leadership and his understanding of where we are," head coach Kenny Atkinson told Bleacher Report.
Indeed, Lopez has immersed himself in Brooklyn's reset. Most recently, he took ownership of the team's Jan. 2 loss to the Utah Jazz. And it was him who, according to the New York Post's Brian Lewis, spearheaded a players-only meeting following a blowout loss to the Washington Wizards on Dec. 30.
When Randy Foye swished a game-winning three against the Hornets, Lopez was among the handful of Nets players who ended up on the floor while mobbing the 33-year-old.
"I love the guy's leadership," Atkinson said. "We could be down 15, and he just comes into every timeout with something positive to say, something to help the young guys. I just love his spirit. I love his attitude."
Perhaps no one benefits from Lopez's demeanor more than the Nets' younger, still-developing talent.
Bringing in high-character guys such as Trevor Booker, Jeremy Lin, Luis Scola and Foye poses the same upside. But there is incalculable value to seeing a nine-year veteran remain so invested in a transitioning squad with the league's worst record.
It only grows when this roster staple is a star headlining a franchise that has ranked in the bottom seven of roster continuity three times over the past four years.
"Brook definitely helps me out a lot," rookie Isaiah Whitehead said. "He's been here. He knows what it takes and what you need to do to keep moving forward."
If you mention to Lopez how quick the team has been to commend his leadership, irrespective of the conditions, he'll first deflect and then oversimplify his role in preserving the collective emotional state.
"I think we've all done a really good job of taking the responsibility to keep us together when things go bad," he told reporters.
"I try to keep that positive mindset and let our guys know what we need to do in the huddle, let them know to keep their energy about them, keep fighting and keep their confidence."
Through all the rah-rah-ing, Lopez is having one helluva season: His 20.3 points and 1.8 blocks per game lead the team and are pretty much what we've come to expect. His three-point shooting and passing, however, have been revelations.
Though Lopez has always dabbled in long twos, he made just three triples on 31 attempts through the first eight years of his career. He has already drilled 58 treys for the season and is draining them at an above-average clip (36.5). And those looks between 16 feet and the three-point line are almost entirely absent from his repertoire.
Post-ups remain a big part of Lopez's game—he's sixth in total back-to-the-basket sets. But these touches are now more tool than offensive lifeline, and he's looking to pass more out of double-teams. Last season, when he led the Association in total post-ups, 72.3 percent of those possessions ended in a shot attempt. That number is down by five percent, to 67.3, this year.
Many of Lopez's post-ups looked something like this last season:
They now often include actions like this:
Some of the difference can be attributed to an increased turnover rate, but Brooklyn is implementing more off-ball movement under Atkinson. Lopez's pass percentage on post touches (26) is the highest it has been since at least 2013-14—as far back as NBA.com's player tracking data goes. His assist rate on these plays isn't enormous (4.1), but it's right in line with those from Joel Embiid (4.4) and Marc Gasol (4.7).
Brooklyn's motion offense encourages ball movement, so Lopez's role as a facilitator was always going to evolve. Still, among the 11 players who have seen 150 or more post-ups, Anthony Davis and Lopez are the only ones playing for teams who rank inside the top 10 of pace.
That Lopez is adapting to the Nets' league-leading speed while notching the highest assist percentage of his career and shooting more threes is absurd. And he's remained an imposing presence at the rim to boot.
Only four other players have contested as many point-blank looks as Lopez and held opponents to under 45 percent shooting: Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, DeAndre Jordan and Kristaps Porzingis. Lopez's paint protection has shined even on the move; he is limiting pick-and-roll divers to a 37 percent conversion rate.
Not surprisingly, according to NBA Math, Lopez has emerged as one of the Nets' most valuable performers on both ends of the court:
NBA Math @NBA_Math
Brooklyn Nets TPA breakdown, in which Brook Lopez has almost twice as high a TPA score as the team's No. 2 player (Trevor Booker): https://t.co/3hz6wpXGZ21/4/2017, 5:03:31 PM
All of this doesn't change the position in which Brooklyn finds itself: last place, obligated to swap first-round selections with the Boston Celtics, sans a clear path toward improvement.
The minutes Lopez spends on the court don't provide respite from reality. The Nets are better with him but still post a net rating (minus-5.4) that would rank 28th overall.
"Brook's been to the playoffs," Atkinson said. "You can say to Brook, 'Process, process, process,' but he wants to win. These guys are high-level competitors."
Trading him to another team—a contender—is the reflexive solution.
Lopez will be 30 when he signs his next contract. His prime doesn't align with Brooklyn's window. And while the market for bigs has dried up, he has unicorn appeal: No one in NBA history has ever matched his current assist, block and three-point percentages—which only adds to the dilemma.
Rebuilding suitors won't unload their best assets in exchange for Lopez because they'll run into the same timeline issues the Nets are incurring now. Contenders usually aren't flush with dispensable blockbuster assets, but Lopez is playing too well for Brooklyn to accept anything less.
Are the Milwaukee Bucks, led by Lopez's former head coach Jason Kidd, willing to build an offer around John Henson, Rashad Vaughn, filler and a first-rounder? Would the Nets even accept that package?
Might the Portland Trail Blazers dangle Meyers Leonard and Mo Harkless (after Jan. 14) plus the Cleveland Cavaliers' 2018 first-rounder? Is that enough for Brooklyn to give up its only star? Or too much for Portland to burn on a center it'll need to re-sign after next season?
The Houston Rockets would be a great fit since Lopez has shown he can shoot threes and wall off the rim in an uptempo system. But their future first-round choices aren't that valuable, and they'll be hard-pressed to match Lopez's incoming salary without dealing one of Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Beverley or Trevor Ariza.
Moving Lopez would be easier over the offseason, when more teams will have flexibility to absorb salary, but then the Nets are offloading him as an expiring contract, inherently curtailing his market appeal. So on and so forth until all potential options are exhausted—not one of which will present itself as a no-brainer.
"A really good NBA player like him, you think you can win every game," Atkinson said of Lopez. "That's your expectation. So for him to understand where we are in our growth process, we all appreciate that."
And it's this appreciation that paints the Nets into an awkward, if slightly enviable, corner: figuring out what to do with a loyal star, on a divergent timeline, who's more valuable to them than he'll ever be to anyone else.
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Offensive Silver Linings
The Nets rank 27th in points scored per 100 possessions, but Atkinson isn't too bothered by the inefficiency.
"Part of what we do—it's not one-person-dominated offense," he said. "A lot of people touch [the ball]. Maybe the negative of that is since you have a lot of people touching it, you have more of a chance of turning the ball over. But I like the process. I like the idea of everybody touching it. "
Brooklyn ranks 29th in turnover percentage, ahead of only the Philadelphia 76ers. It's possible those miscues are part and parcel of the team's learning curve, along with its reliance on more inexperienced guards in Lin's absence.
"We're working to fix it," Atkinson said. "We've addressed it. But a lot of it's decision-making and quality of passes."
There are already signs that the offense is a heartbeat away from receiving an organic boost. The Nets generate more wide-open looks than any other squad; they're just shooting 39.9 percent on those looks—the fifth-lowest mark in the league.
Their system is creating opportunities; now, they need to capitalize on them.
"Of course we're not happy with it," Kilpatrick said. "But at the end of the day, we have to make sure we're staying the course and doing all the little things to put ourselves in better situations."
It's hard to pinpoint any one remedy to cure the Nets' woes. Different things have gone wrong and looked bad on different nights.
One thing to consider: Nine of the 17 road games have entered crunch time—defined as the last five minutes of contests in which no team is ahead or behind by more than five points. The Nets are 1-8 in these situations, with a bottom-three defensive rating.
Getting within striking distance is an achievement in itself. Brooklyn lost at the buzzer in Milwaukee (Oct. 29) and Chicago (Dec. 28) and was on the brink of winning in Houston (Dec. 12).
"We have to have the same mentality we have at home," Whitehead said. "[In] our best loss, versus Chicago, they hit a tough shot. But if we play that way, as hard as possible and [don't] let the crowd affect us, then I think we'll get some wins."
Detrimental third quarters have been a topic in Brooklyn for much of the season. The Nets place 30th in both offensive and defensive efficiency and frequently struggle with the adjustments opponents have made at halftime.
Injuries and a fluid rotation aren't helping matters. It's difficult to forge continuity when your most-used lineup in these third frames hasn't even tallied 70 total minutes for the season.
Defenses throw more bodies at Lopez in the second half, and the Nets struggle to keep him involved. His shot attempts have plummeted in the third quarter over the last 15 games, even though that's when he's played the most.
"Somehow, we have to figure out when teams do turn up their juice and in that third quarter, in that second half, that we’re ready to handle it," Atkinson said. "And that we’re ready to—all of us, coaches, players—just be more mentally and physically prepared to come out of that locker room."
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.
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