Last season, the Brooklyn Nets were weak at center. A year later, that same position will be one of the team’s biggest sources of strength.
After Brook Lopez broke his right foot 17 games into 2013-14, the Nets were forced to get tricky. Former coach Jason Kidd implemented a small-ball lineup that featured Paul Pierce at power forward and a combination of Mason Plumlee, Kevin Garnett and Andray Blatche at center.
That lineup was successful enough to bring Brooklyn to the second tier of the postseason after edging out the Toronto Raptors in the first round.
Now, the 7’0” Lopez is back. And under new coach Lionel Hollins, Brooklyn will transform from a tiny team into a big and bruising one.
It’s unclear if Hollins will start both Lopez and Plumlee. But regardless of who starts, those two will be Brooklyn’s primary big men.
Garnett is still in the mix and will look to bounce back from the worst season of his 19-year career. ESPN, CBS Sports and Roto World project Old Man River Garnett to begin next season as the Nets’ starting PF.
The old-school Hollins is likely to maximize Brooklyn’s revitalized frontline and turn the Nets into one of the NBA’s stronger interior teams.
What Lopez's return means for the Nets
The 26-year-old center will give the Nets what the team found itself desperately lacking last season—a legitimate interior scorer.
Plumlee, Garnett and Blatche combined to average 24.8 points for Brooklyn last year. Prior to getting injured, Lopez was putting up 20.7 points on a nightly basis.
The Nets relied too heavily on Joe Johnson, Pierce and Deron Williams to carry the offensive load a year ago. In fairness, they didn’t have much of a choice.
Lopez is crafty and efficient on the block. What he lacks in quickness, he makes up for in strength.
Lopez also has a respectable mid-range shot which will relieve Plumlee of playing too far out of his comfort zone. He’s also a reliable back-to-the-basket guy, one who the Nets can feed the ball to when all else fails.
He’s shed more than 15 pounds after undergoing foot surgery, as relayed by Mitch Abramson of the New York Daily News.
"I'm at my playing weight," Lopez said at a Boys & Girls Club event at Barclays Center on August 20. "I'm back to the weight that's normal for me. Last I checked I was just under 275. I'm definitely more comfortable but I think that just comes with being more active again."
Perhaps the dropped weight will allow Lopez to do a better job on the glass this season, something that the Nets will desperately need. In 2013-14, Brooklyn ranked 29th in team rebounding.
The 2012-13 All-Star snagged just six rebounds a night last year. He’s never been an elite rebounder—his career average is 7.3—but the Nets will need their lone 7-footer to contribute more on the boards.
Lopez won’t be the deciding factor in how Brooklyn’s 2014-15 campaign turns out. But his health and level of production will play an enormous role in the Nets' push towards the postseason.
Should Plumlee start?
Plumlee played power forward at Duke and was drafted by Brooklyn to play that position. Last season, the 24-year-old became a center by default. For Hollins, this decision should be an easy one.
Start him at power forward.
The second-year player told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News that he’s eying a starting role alongside Lopez:
I’m definitely comfortable at power forward. I’m a very good passer; I can see the floor, and I can put the ball on the floor. I don’t know what they’re looking to do, if they’re trying to stay small but what made that work last year was [Pierce], so I can’t imagine we do that again. I think we would play two bigs and how coach Hollins has played traditionally has been that way.
I think so (I can play next to Lopez). He demands so much attention, you can let him be the focal point scoring wise and then you kind of complement him. So it can be a good two-man tandem. Him and [Garnett], him and me, me and Kevin, however you want to do it.
The argument in favor of Garnett starting revolves around the fact that he can stretch the floor. The knock on Plumlee is that he can’t make perimeter shots.
Both are valid points. After all, Plumlee didn’t convert a single field goal outside of the paint last year. Not one.
Plumlee has acknowledged that weakness in his game, and noted that it was frustrating during the playoffs. He also pointed out that he’s ready for a bigger role in the offense, per Bondy:
You start playing a team over and over again (in the playoffs), I didn’t have enough to go to. They shut down the pick-and-roll, the playing at the rim, so when they’re switching a 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6 guy on me, you have to give me the ball on the block. And when that’s not something you’ve done all year, they’re not all of a sudden going to throw me the ball down low. …
It really doesn’t matter who is on me. I feel comfortable catching the ball in the block, extended post. But that’s not really something I did (last season). I started off the season not playing at all, so they said, ‘Look, you want to play, do these things.’ So I’m going to do what they told me. I wanted more, but they’re not going to be throwing in new stuff in the playoffs.
Getting a future Hall of Famer in his 20th year in the league to give up his spot to a youngster might be a challenge for Hollins. But KG isn’t bigger than the team, and he doesn’t deserve to start on the merit of his resume alone.
Plumlee and Lopez will prove to be a formidable duo in the paint next season. A starting lineup that includes both of them will give Brooklyn its best chance to win.
Where does KG fit in?
Garnett would appear to be the odd man out here. But that’s not the case at all. Even at 38 years old, KG still brings something to the table.
While he finished the year shooting 44.1 percent from the field, Garnett hit 57 percent of his shots between January and the end of the regular season. Garnett’s final shooting percentage, though not horrible, is just a reflection of how poorly he had shot early in the year. After New Year’s, something clicked for him.
Garnett prefers to play power forward, and he doesn't hold back in expressing it. Here’s what he said on January 10 after lining up at center in a win over the Miami Heat:
“I have no comment on [playing center],” he told reporters with a smirk. “It’s not my preference, but it is what it is. Whatever we have to do to win.”
Back in May, I wrote about why KG should cozy up to idea of being a 5:
KG’s wishes are all well and good, but numbers don’t lie. And this past season’s numbers indicate that Garnett was much better as a center.
Per 48 minutes, the veteran big man had a player efficiency rating of 16.5 while playing center, which was a significant step up from his 10.7 PER as a power forward, according to 82games.com.
While the slender, 6'11" Garnett is typically a bit physically overmatched by his opponent, his desire and heart often level the playing field. And in the event that the Nets encounter a behemoth like Roy Hibbert or Dwight Howard next year, the 7’0” Lopez should be up to the task.
At this point in his career, KG is a better center than power forward. Hollins’ best move would be to bring Garnett off the bench as the second-string center and give Mirza Teletovic, Andrei Kirilenko or rookie Cory Jefferson the reserve PF role.
Brooklyn’s frontcourt in Hollins' offense
Reed Wallach of Nets Daily made a case for Brooklyn to give Lopez a greater role in the offense, one that includes facilitating responsibilities:
Hollins should be open to mimicking his Memphis offense to an extent to see what Lopez can do with a more advanced role that isn't just to score at will in the post, but to distribute the ball and be a facilitator as well as a scoring threat, something few big men in the league can do.
Similar to how Gasol provided open looks for the likes of Mike Conley and Tony Allen in Memphis, Lopez could do the same for the Nets’ abundance of shooters.
Distributing roles aside, Plumlee, Lopez and even KG must be used extensively in pick-and-rolls for Brooklyn to take some pressure off Johnson, who carried the Nets down the stretch in the postseason.
Putting the big men in motion will create driving lanes for Williams and open up the perimeter for shooters like Johnson, Teletovic and Jarrett Jack. Far off too often last season, Brooklyn handed Johnson the ball and essentially said “make something happen.”
Pick-and-rolls will also equate to easy buckets for Lopez, open jumpers for KG and emphatic dunks for the freaky athletic Plumlee, who, by the way, had a better max-vert at the combine than Blake Griffin did.
The Nets have everything that they could ask for in the frontcourt heading into 2014-15: an All-Star-caliber centerpiece, one of the league’s best young big men and a battle-tested veteran.
Under the guidance of Hollins, Brooklyn’s frontcourt rotation could turn out to be one of the best in the Eastern Conference.
All stats are accurate courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.