The Nets are in a tough spot right now. This upcoming road trip represents the West Coast swing every northeast team has to go on during the season. It’s a rigamarole most teams would rather avoid, and in a quirk of NBA scheduling, it’s happening at the wrong time for the Nets. While Brooklyn faces the Clippers, Jazz, Mavericks and five others across the country, they won’t return to Brooklyn until April when they host the team right behind them in the packed Eastern Conference standings, the Chicago Bulls. With Carmelo‘s knee a mystery, Amar’e Stoudemire and Rasheed Wallace out until at least the playoffs (it remains to be seen whether ‘Sheed ever gets back on the court for New York this season), and Tyson Chandler suffering a knee contusion in Denver (and now has a stiff neck as well), the Knicks’ hold on the three seed is vulnerable. The Nets, who share the same number of wins as the Knicks after both teams won last night, have an opportunity to make a move to overtake them during the season’s final month.
The problem is they’re playing eight games on the road in 17 nights, and they might not be in any condition to really give the Knicks a run for that spot, let alone Indiana at No. 2. Indiana is struggling, so their hold on the two seed is far from certain. With Boston rounding into playoff shape without Rondo, with Derrick Rose‘s return just outside the United Center ken, with Al Horford heating up and Josh Smith remaining in ATL for the time being, and with Monta Ellis playing for a new deal this summer with Milwaukee (don’t do it!), this is the time for some Eastern Conference team not named the Heat to solidify themselves as the second-best team in the East.
A big part of Brooklyn’s ability to travel west and still come back in good enough shape to challenge for homecourt advantage in the first round of this spring’s playoffs (and possibly in the second round) is their first-time All-Star, Brook Lopez. Lopez has been playing out of his mind on offense this season, posting the fifth-best PER (Player Efficiency Rating), and best among centers, in the league (per Hoopdata). This comes just a season after he missed every game but five with a broken right foot and then a sprained right ankle that allowed the Nets to keep him out for the remainder of the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. His lost season, combined with his inability to snag rebounds or play the type of defense people expected of him coming out of Stanford with his brother in 2008, led to a smattering of articles before this season criticizing the Nets for offering Lopez his four-year $60 million contract this past July.
I was one of the people who looked at Brook’s awful rebounding numbers — he’s towards the bottom of the league’s centers in DRR and TRR (Defensive Rebounding Rate and Total) — and wondered what was preventing an athletic seven-footer from grabbing boards. After watching a few games and focusing entirely on Lopez’s defense, and after input from a friend, it seemed like Lopez contested opponents shots more than other big men, and would even go out on the wing to attempt to distract or block a midrange jumper when he switched on to an opponent’s stretch-four or small forward. It was a working theory for his inability to snag defensive rebounds, at least, not that his offensive rebounding is that impressive, either, but it’s the inability to corral missed shots on defense that’s always been highlighted by his critics.
On an overcast and slushy Saturday, I got a chance to ask Lopez about his rebounding at an Old Navy meet and greet event across Atlantic Avenue from the new Barclays Center. Keep in mind, Brook agreed to talk despite having spent the better part of an hour (he was quite punctual) signing autographs for a largely prepubescent Brooklyn line that had formed outside the store (it makes sense the crowd shaded young because it’s a family neighborhood now — much to the chagrin of the artistic denizens the borough is known for based on the coverage in The New York Times‘ Style section, and most older New York basketball fans have already been rooting for the Knicks over the years). It’s rare that an NBA player would agree to talk to a backpack-clad blogger after posing for hundreds of photos and signing t-shirts, but after handing him some questions, he agreed.