Thursday started as a good day for the New Jersey Nets. They began the day by agreeing to terms on a one-year deal with shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson. Stevenson won a championship with the Mavericks last season and will immediately provide a winning pedigree, toughness and perimeter defense to a team lacking in all three areas. However, the way the day ended overshadowed the shrewd morning signing of Stevenson. Yesterday evening it was announced that starting center Brook Lopez had a stress fracture in his foot and would be out for six to eight weeks with the injury. This injury is one that could change the course and future of the franchise and hurts the Nets on multiple levels.
The first way in which Lopez’s injury hurts the Nets is obvious: his injury puts their pursuit of Dwight Howard on hold for the immediate future. Lopez was the centerpiece of any Nets proposal for Howard, a top young center with the potential to be the Magic’s long-term replacement for Howard. While Brook is clearly no Dwight, his offensive ability, including range out to 18 feet and a great touch around the rim, makes him one of the top centers in the game (at least offensively). The rest of the Nets’ package was to be centered on a bundle of first-round picks that would ensure the Magic have ample opportunity to rebuild. Without Lopez healthy, there is no deal to be had.
Orlando won’t make a trade where Lopez can’t contribute to the team right away because, despite some of Dwight’s insinuations, the Magic do have talent on their roster and could contend for a lower playoff seed with Lopez as their center. The Nets don’t have another young player who is proven at the NBA level that the Magic would find appealing in place of Lopez, and without a proven commodity, the deal is off. With the Nets essentially being unable to trade for Howard now, it gives other teams an opportunity to jump into the Howard sweepstakes and overtake the Nets as the frontrunner for Howard’s services. All the Nets can do now on this front is hope Lopez heals fully, plays out of his mind when he gets back in February, and the Magic still find their offer most appealing.
The second way in which this hurts the Nets is that it greatly diminishes their chances of making the playoffs this season. When he bought the team last year Mikhail Prokhorov promised the playoffs within one season and a championship within five, a pitch the team is working hard to sell Deron Williams on. Williams knows that the team he has currently is not enough to win a championship with, not even close. But at least the Nets were making moves in the right direction. This injury is a major step back.
Lopez is clearly the team’s second-best player, and benefitted enormously from playing with Williams at the end of last season. Up until this point, Lopez had never missed a game in his career, but now he will likely miss at least a month and a half of the season. Williams’ options for players to dish to have diminished, just like the team’s playoff chances. Lopez was expected to help keep the Nets afloat and Williams content until they could pawn him off for a bigger prize at some point this year. Now his position is being manned by Johan Petro, Shelden Williams, and the just-acquired Mehmet Okur. Okur has proven he can score and stretch the floor with his shooting ability, but he has had trouble staying healthy and doesn’t have the versatility of Lopez. With Lopez now gone, guys like MarShon Brooks, Anthony Morrow and Damion James will all be expected to score more than they would have otherwise and their ability to create their own shots will be paramount to the team’s success.
The third and most important way in which this injury impacts the team is in their ability to keep Deron Williams. The goal was continual improvement until the Nets found a superstar to place alongside of him. Now the Nets will likely struggle and they don’t have the pieces to make a trade that will change the landscape of the franchise. If the Nets lose a lot early on, and they very well might, Williams will likely becoming discontented and the ticking time bomb until free agency will tick ever louder. The only thing the Nets will be able to realistically do is find stopgap post players (like Okur) who can prevent the team from going into a freefall and hope Williams realizes they were dealt a bad deck of cards.
However, if Lopez’s recovery is slower than expected, the Nets lose, and another team gets Dwight, that trifecta of events could lead to the one thing the organization and fans fear the most: Williams walking out, leaving the franchise in a state of disarray that will take a long time for them to overcome.
What’s the worst part of this injury for the Nets? Ruining this season or temporarily taking away their trading opportunities?
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