2:07 pm Dec. 23, 2011
Much is said about the Knicks’ roster-related successes and failures, from their vain pursuit of LeBron James through the painstaking acquisition of the Big Three. Little is said about what the Nets do.
It’s not for want of drama. Like the Knicks, New Jersey implemented a no-going-back, scorched-earth rebuilding strategy after a miserable run on the court.
They won just 12 games back in 2009-10, but it was OK, because they had a bright future in mind: add a couple of superstars with owner Mikhail Prokhorov's money, move to Brooklyn in 2012, and take the city from the sad-sack Knicks. Prokhorov, in a gesture of corporate smack-talking toward another garish rich person, went so far as erect a billboard proclaiming the Nets’ pretensions in full view of Madison Square Garden and owner James Dolan.
But the Nets’ rebuilding (or just plain building?) effort went wrong from the beginning, though. When the Knicks whiffed on LeBron, they at least came out of it with A’mare Stoudemire. The Nets lost out, and were then forced to spend their money on such mediocrities as Travis Outlaw, Johan Petro and Anthony Morrow. Accordingly, they have continued to struggle, posting a 24-58 record last season.
The good news was that New Jersey still had a full complement of draft picks, a young, talented center in Brook Lopez, and the salary-cap room that would allow them to trade for and pay a superstar close to free agency. That led to the odd battle last season between the Knicks and the Nets to acquire Carmelo Anthony. Denver strongly preferred New Jersey's combination of draft picks and players (led by the just-drafted Derrick Favors), but Carmelo Anthony would only agree to sign an extension with the Knicks. Denver had no choice but to take the lesser package.
Running out of time—the move to Brooklyn was fast approaching, and the Nets were still very much the Nets—New Jersey turned around and traded that same package of draft picks and players to the Utah Jazz for star point guard Deron Williams. They had their first star, but with a catch—Williams refused to sign an extension with the Nets, and is currently waiting to see if they can surround him with talent before he hits free agency this summer.
All of which means the one remaining superstar on the trading board—would-be free agent center Dwight Howard—carries, for the Nets, more than just a chance to win some ballgames. Trade for Dwight Howard, and the Nets can be next year what the Clippers are this year—a talented team in a major market competing, finally, for that market’s attention. Fail to acquire Howard, and there's a good chance Williams leaves as well, and the franchise's one chance to start anew in Brooklyn disappears forever.
So the news Thursday that Brook Lopez, the team's starting center and best tradeable asset, has a stress fracture in his foot, requiring surgery and a lengthy recovery, did more than just dim the team's uncertain 2011-12 prospects. It may have derailed, with one injury, their plan to become relevant in New York sometime in the near future.
Consider that Dwight Howard has told the Orlando Magic, his current employer, that he'll only sign an extension with one of three teams: the Nets, the Dallas Mavericks, and the Los Angeles Lakers. The Mavs and Lakers are the N.B.A.'s last two champions. If the Nets were ever in a position to compete with them for Howard’s affection, they probably won’t be if they continue to struggle and Williams makes it clear that he's leaving town.
But as long as he remains willing, it is still incumbent upon the Nets to offer an enticing enough deal to Orlando to top that of the Lakers, who have plenty of chips remaining from their failed pursuit of Chris Paul. Foremost among these is center Andrew Bynum, a far more effective player than Lopez (particularly at rebounding) whose major drawback was durability. Lopez, who hadn't missed a game in three seasons, had him beat there. Suddenly, that advantage disappears, or is at least greatly reduced.
The clock is also ticking on Lopez' recovery. If the recovery time is only 4-6 weeks, as the Nets have estimated, Lopez should be back well before the March 15 trading deadline. But others have estimated the recovery time on a surgery like this at more like four months. That would get Lopez back just in time for the end of the season, and in all likelihood, Deron Williams' final games as a Net.
And what exactly is Brook Lopez' motivation to return quickly, rather than make certain he is entirely healthy? He knows the Nets don't want him, and rushing back could either put his health at further risk, or lead to ineffective play that will make him less desirable to another team.
Now picture the Nets, who will struggle to make the playoffs with only Williams, emergency center Mehmet Okur (acquired Thursday evening in response to the Lopez news), and little else. Williams leaves, Howard signs elsewhere, and Prokhorov and the Nets are asking people to get themselves to Brooklyn to watch them go 24-58 once again.