Why Brook Lopez, Not Deron Williams, Is the Nets' Most Important Star

Brett David RobertsCorrespondent IMarch 3, 2013

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 23: Brook Lopez #11 and Deron Williams #8 of the Brooklyn Nets wait for the start of play against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Barclays Center on November 23, 2012 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Deron Williams was supposed to be the superstar and face of the Brooklyn Nets franchise. But Brook Lopez's improved play this season has changed that perception.

As a result, Williams' super-max contract, which will pay him between $17 million this season and $22 million by the 2016-17 season, makes Lopez's max contract for $13 million this season seem like a bargain (salaries via Hoopshype).

But it's not just that the Nets are getting more bang for the buck with Lopez. His play has exceeded  Williams' in major statistical categories.

In his fifth season in the NBA, Lopez has elevated his play to the level he had reached in his second- and third-year campaigns. His rebounding has climbed back to a respectable 7.2 per game, which is a marked improvement over his last full season in 2010-11 when he averaged six boards per contest.

Given that rebounding machine Reggie Evans mans the 4-spot, Lopez isn't called upon to rebound as much as most centers, making that number even more respectable.

But Lopez's most important breakthrough has come on defense. For the first time, Lopez is averaging more than two blocks per game, and he's been noticeably quicker on defensive rotations. He's been better about help defense, and the blocked shots are just a small part of the improvement.

Lopez is posting a Player Efficiency Rating of 25.5 while allowing opposing centers to manage just a 15.8 (via 82games.com). The Nets are plus-109 points with Lopez on the court. Comparatively, Williams is posting a PER of 18.2 and allowing the same to opposing point guards.

Injuries have adversely affected Williams' play. His ankles have deteriorated and left him with a fraction of the normal foot speed and lateral motion that he had earlier in his career.

Simply put, he has regressed as a player since leaving the Utah Jazz, while Lopez is only getting better. Lopez ranks atop the Nets' point differentials and has the team's highest PER.

And yet, he's still not the team's most highly regarded player. Williams, who is an old 28 years of age, has made three NBA All-Star teams, while Lopez, who turns 25 on April 1st, made his one and only appearance in this year's game.

So Lopez figures to be a couple years away from entering his prime, while Williams is a couple years away from exiting his.

Clearly, by any GMs' thinking, this would have to make Lopez the better player, the more valuable player and the one who should be on a super-max contract. Many felt Lopez wasn't even worth the max contract he was awarded this summer.  But Lopez ranks No. 1 in the league at the center spot in PER, and his rating is significantly higher than the host of players who join him in the top 10 (subscription required).

With those numbers, Lopez should be paid accordingly. Dwight Howard is on a super-max contract and is ranked No. 19 in PER. While Howard may still be the NBA's best center when healthy, the uncertainty about the condition of his back and shoulders makes Lopez the more attractive piece.

Lopez is not nursing any major injuries, and he is showing no signs of favoring his right foot, which he broke last season. That injury caused him to miss all but five games.

Lopez, who played all 82 games his first two seasons in the NBA, has been healthy this season. His durability is worth noting in a league riddled with injury-prone players.

And that's a big reason he's outproduced Williams this season.

It's difficult for a player to perform his best when not 100 percent healthy. Will Williams ever be fully healthy again?

Until he is—and possibly not even then—Lopez is the most valuable Net in Brooklyn.  

However, the center is not without his faults.  He has struggled of late, and has faltered late in games. In the Mar. 2 loss to the Chicago Bulls, he failed to produce down the stretch.  

Lopez hit six of his first nine shots, but went on to miss four of his last seven.  Moreover, Joakim Noah had his way on the boards, grabbing 10 rebounds, while Lopez managed just three rebounds.  He out-scored Noah 22-21, but needed three more shots to do it.

This makes his status as an elite center questionable, but it does nothing to diminish his importance to the Nets.  He is indisputably their best player, and with some improvement in his rebounding and clutch-time performances, he could take the next step and rightfully be considered a top-3 center in the Association.