Lopez's 2013-14 season soured last December when he went down for the year with a fractured fifth metatarsal in his right foot. Worse, perhaps, for the big man was the fact that his team played a more fluid brand of basketball in his absence.
Brooklyn now has an opportunity to capitalize on this incompatibility, though. If they swap Lopez during this offseason, they can continue to play within the small-ball style that catalyzed their turnaround last year and also acquire a draft pick and some financial flexibility.
Before advocating for Lopez's departure, it's only fair to acknowledge his immense offensive talent at the center position. Since being drafted 10th overall by the Nets out of Stanford in 2008, Lopez has developed into one of the best offensive big men in the league. Check out some select statistics, both from this past season and his career as a whole.
|Points per game||Field Goal Percentage||Player Efficiency Rating||Offensive Rating||Win Shares/48 Minutes|
Lopez combines a nice touch in the paint with an accurate "jumper"—his feet often don't even leave the ground when he shoots from outside—that make him a tough assignment for opposing centers. His shot chart from 2012-13, his last full season, shows that he can essentially score from anywhere inside the three-point arc. Like most centers, he gets the bulk of his points inside, but he'll bury 18-footers if given too much space.
Where Lopez fails is on the defensive end. Despite standing a bulky 7'0", Lopez does not offer much in the way of rim protection, and he compounds that weakness by frequently getting out-hustled on the boards. Compare some of his key defensive metrics with the other Brooklyn bigs of this past season.
|Rebounds per 36 minutes||Total Rebound Percentage||Defensive Rating|
Clearly Lopez was one of the team's worst interior players on D. It wasn't a huge surprise, then, when the Nets improved defensively with Lopez on the bench. The Nets slid lankier, more athletic players such as Kevin Garnett and Mason Plumlee into the center position, giving their defense better quickness and range.
The team's Defensive Rating with Lopez was 106.4 points per 100 possessions, and a significantly better 104.2 without him. On the other end, Brooklyn had enough offensive firepower to withstand the loss of Lopez and finished the season 35-21 while lacking their starting center.
The Nets should look at that 56-game period as a successful experiment. They found a style of basketball that fit their unique roster: a spread offense that promotes isolation and perimeter shooting, and a quick-footed defense capable of rapid adjustments, such as switches on the pick-and-roll. If they retain Lopez, that system may be compromised, and Plumlee's development may be slowed or stunted.
The potential value of trading Lopez isn't just about his lack of on-court chemistry within head coach Jason Kidd's schemes, though. Shipping away Lopez would also give the Nets a chance to nab a pick in this year's loaded draft class while also alleviating some of Brooklyn's deep financial problems.
Lopez is talented enough that interested teams would offer a first-round pick in the upcoming draft, coupled with at least one serviceable veteran player.There are a couple of franchises that have the right assets to enter negotiations with Brooklyn. While the Cleveland Cavaliers will not forfeit their No. 1 overall pick for Lopez, as some mistaken speculators suggested, there are other teams with multiple picks that might be interested in him.
The Boston Celtics could trade their No. 17 pick, and the Phoenix Suns could forfeit either their No. 14 pick or their No. 16 pick, for Lopez. Meanwhile, the Nets would be able to avoid paying Lopez the $32 million he is owed through the next two seasons, reining in their swollen total salary.
One might argue that the Nets shouldn't trade Lopez now, since his value has diminished following his recent injury. There's truth to that thought—Lopez was probably worth more a year ago, coming off a solid season, and could be worth more halfway through the upcoming season if he stays healthy and continues to be productive.
But Brooklyn wants to avoid getting absolutely nothing for Lopez, which is a distinct possibility next summer. Lopez can opt out of the final year of his contract, which would leave the Nets with more spending money in 2015 but nothing to show for their departed center. Plus, there's the chance that Lopez's value could further plummet if he proves still affected by his foot injury. If Lopez hobbles off the court for a second consecutive December next winter, the Nets will wish that they unloaded him this summer.
It might be painful for the Nets' front office to part ways with Lopez. He is without a doubt their best draft pick in the last ten years, and the team has nurtured him into a legitimate NBA star. But a trade presents the Nets with a great opportunity to embrace their new identity and pick up some rebuilding chips at the same time.