Brooklyn Nets fans don’t have much to hang their hats on entering the 2015-16 campaign.
Billy King’s recent attempts to create a championship squad flopped, and the current team lacks star power and is projected to land in the bottom half of the lackluster Eastern Conference.
While we might witness promising development from a couple prospects this season, the only big-name player who’s in the prime of his career is Brook Lopez. The 7’0″ tower is fresh off signing a three-year, $60 million contract and will be the focal point of the Nets’ offense moving forward.
Lopez may not lift Brooklyn into contention next year, but the big fella is poised to give the Barclays faithful some fireworks and perhaps an All-Star bid.
Why should we consider the injury-prone, plodding center a strong candidate to reach his second career midseason showcase? There are several factors working in his favor.
For starters, he’s actually entering the campaign in full health for the first time in a long time:
For first time in three years, Brook Lopez will NOT be rehabbing from an injury this summer. As he's noted, that's a big change.
— NetsDaily.com (@NetsDaily) August 2, 2015
People who compare Brook Lopez's injury to either Yao Ming's or Joel Embiid's are not orthopedists. Say it with me: Navicular vs. Metatarsal
— NetsDaily.com (@NetsDaily) August 2, 2015
The newfound health is a huge plus for Lopez, who recovered nicely from January 2014 metatarsal surgery to play 72 games in 2014-15. If his major foot issues are indeed behind him, he’ll have a chance to rack up All-Star worthy stats.
Provided he’s utilized properly and adequately paced by Lionel Hollins throughout the year, Lopez should see a modest uptick in usage and scoring chances.
During his 2012-13 All-Star campaign, he posted career-highs in usage percentage (28.6) and field goal attempts per 36 minutes (17.5). In the ensuing two seasons, the additions of stars like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and the emergence Mason Plumlee shaved Lopez’s numbers down.
The departure of those key cogs, along with the shipment of Deron Williams away, has left a sizable scoring void the front office can’t immediately fill. Cue Lopez, who should see his usage and field goal attempts get back up to their 2012-13 levels.
But even if his usage climbs, will he be efficient? Will he get enough help from playmakers? Lopez no longer has his most talented table-setter, D-Will.
The answer to both of those questions is yes.
Lopez doesn’t seem like a terrific candidate to improve in a league that’s rapidly shifting to small-ball. In fact, his last couple of coaches have sidelined him during several sequences in favor of a speedier lineup.
However, he’s remained relevant and potent by evolving from a predominantly post-up oriented big to a face-up weapon and pick-and-roll finisher. Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated explains:
Posting up is an important part of Lopez’s game but hardly the sum of it. With time, he’s diversified. More of his offensive usage now comes from rolling to the rim rather than working with his back to the basket—a quiet change that dramatically alters what kind of role Lopez could occupy. Efficient, high-volume post play demands a tailored structure. What Lopez has become is more flexible to the minute-to-minute needs of a modern NBA team.
Hollins facilitated the stylistic change last season, and it made a ton of sense. Lopez scores more efficiently in pick-and-rolls (1.08 points per possession) than post-ups (0.94 points per possession), as Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game noted.
A hefty portion of his diet is the mid-range game, which sounds irresponsible in today’s age of three-or-layup offense. But Lopez replaced some of his forced turnarounds with more flip shots on the move and in-rhythm jumpers. His mid-range percentages improved noticeably from 2013-14 to 2014-15:
As for playmaking assistance, Lopez should produce just fine with the Nets’ current starters and rotation. Sure, Jarrett Jack isn’t as dynamic as Williams, but Lopez collaborates smoothly with him on pick-and-rolls and shot 53 percent off passes from Jack in 2014-15. Lopez also works well with Joe Johnson (53 percent), who will handle a substantial number of possessions as usual.
It’s well-documented that Lopez isn’t a great rebounder. And he’s also not an ultra-versatile or explosive defender. But on this Nets roster, he’s easily the most well-rounded big man, with the ability to score inside-out and protect the rim. Within six feet from the hoop, opponents shot 4.7 percentage points worse against Lopez than they did against the rest of the league in 2014-15.
The point is he should play 30-32 minutes per game next season (up from 29.2 last year). That’d give him a fair chance to post 19-21 points and seven-plus rebounds per game, along with a couple of blocks.
Those numbers may not be enough to guarantee an All-Star spot. As weak as the Eastern Conference is, Lopez still faces low-post competition from veterans Chris Bosh, Al Horford and Pau Gasol, and he’ll likely get pressure from up-and-comers Nikola Vucevic and Andre Drummond.
But a healthy year and that kind of production will certainly make Lopez a serious threat to regain midseason glory.