Brook Lopez has been under attack. Whether it’s from his own fans chanting the name of another center or bloggers dismissing his entire career based on the size of his new contract, Lopez has been the center of much criticism over the past year. In fact, he was recently thrown under the bus yet again, this time by Grantland’s Zach Lowe in an article titled “Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez Problem”. In typical Grantland fashion, Mr. Lowe’s article is extremely well researched, articulate, and multifaceted. Also in typical Grantland fashion, it is very, very, very long, so allow me to summarize it as such: Brook Lopez is not very good at defense, and neither is the rest of the Nets’ frontcourt. Since I’m not getting paid the big bucks, I won’t address each of Lowe’s criticisms in detail, but speak to them more generally.
Let me take you back to 2008. The then New Jersey Nets were in the middle of a pseudo-retool, trading stars Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson for a bunch of players who were essentially place holders for the great Lebron chase of 2010. While none of this ultimately worked out, it meant that Brook Lopez came into a team where he would immediately be looked upon to start. And start is what he did, playing all 82 games and coming off the bench just seven times. Over the course of his rookie campaign, Lopez gained a lot of attention with his impressive numbers, averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds, and just under 2 blocks per game. While his performance did not do much for the built-to-fail Nets, he managed to finish third in that season’s Rookie of the Year voting.
So what happened between then and now? Lopez saw his average rebounds per game decrease from 8.1 to 6.1, while also watching his number of swats go down from 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes to 1.5. Meanwhile, his offensive output steadily increased, with his points per game ascending from 13 in ’08 to 20.4 by the end of 2011. During this time, he also remained consistent in his assists, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage.
Here in lies the problem. The decrease in Lopez’s defensive numbers is not a matter of Lopez forgetting how to rebound. Instead, it is a direct result of playing for some really horrible teams. During Brook’s rookie year, the Nets went a below average 34-48. Over the next two seasons, 164 games, they would only win another abysmal 36 times, allowing their opponents to score well over 100 points per game. Now sure, one could look at these stats and say Lopez was a part of the problem, and technically they would be right. But can you name one member of either of those teams’ frontcourts that was worth a damn?
In fact, there has only been one member of the Nets’ frontcourt that has been around for most of Brook Lopez’s career, and that is Kris Humphries. Even then, Hump wasn’t on the squad during Lopez’s rookie year and didn’t really establish himself until this past season, where Lopez barely played (you’ll notice I’m essentially ignoring the ‘11-‘12 season, both since Lopez was injured and because I like to pretend it didn’t happen). In fact, even without a competent center, Hump finished 2nd in rebounds amongst forwards last year and 9th in blocked shots. What’s more, Brook hasn’t logged any significant minutes with the newly acquired Gerald Wallace. Again, a lot is in the air with Wallace, but looking at the ’09-’10 season (the last time he played a whole season with one team) gives a lot of hope; Crash averaged 10 rebounds per game with 2 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1 block. While many are quick to discount the possibility of Wallace reaching this level again, he is entering this season with easily the best squad of his career and no discernible injuries.
This may seem like a whole lot of “what ifs?” and it is. That is exactly my point. The biggest issue with previewing the Brooklyn Nets, whether individually or as a team, is that we’ve never seen the Brooklyn Nets. Sure, the same banners that hung in East Rutherford and Newark now reside at the Barclay’s Center, but the team that will take the floor against the New York Knicks on November 1 is virtually unrecognizable from the team that faced them on April 18.
The portrait that Zach Lowe paints is of a worst-case scenario; the team doesn’t gel, Lopez continue to see his rebounds and blocks decrease, Humphries falls off, and Gerald Wallace doesn’t make it an entire year without an injury. While all of this is entirely possible, he, and many of the Nets’ other detractors, fail to realize that if all the pieces fall into place as they are intended, there is no reason this team cannot finish as high as second in the East. Sure, either way, they’re most likely not winning the championship this year, but this is the perfect squad to get into the playoffs, win a series or two, and build a new legacy. And despite all of the posturing by Mikhail Prokhorov, this is the goal. This is the reason for “the uniforms, arena, 40/40 Club, and Calvin Klein VIP entrances”. The front office is attempting the massive feat of washing clean over 35 years of failure, and players like Brook Lopez are the ideal building blocks to do it.