2:43 pm Jul. 12, 2012
With the decision by the Orlando Magic to suspend Dwight Howard's trade talks with the Brooklyn Nets, and the Nets' decision to sign Brook Lopez to a four-year, $60.7 million contract, it's probably safe to say that Howard, the Nets' longtime target, won't be on hand to open the new arena this fall.
With so much focus on the Howard pursuit, less attention has been paid to what would otherwise be an epic story: $305 million in contracts already paid out to assemble a Brooklyn team that should be fascinating to watch this year. Even if the Super Team has not come together, the Nets should still contend for not only a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but one of the top four seeds, along with the Heat, the Pacers, the Knicks and the Celtics, likely in that order.
The Nets will feature the best starting backcourt in the conference, with Deron Williams at point guard and Joe Johnson at shooting guard. Johnson is an elite scorer who shoots well from the outside and creates matchup problems with smaller guards due to his size, and with larger guards due to his quickness. Williams is one of the finest point guards in the league, and should only enhance the scoring of Johnson. Both are in their primes.
Up front, the Nets know they'll be starting Lopez at center, and Gerald Wallace at the small forward spot. Wallace may be overpaid (though it is the length of his just-signed four-year, $40 million contract that is of greater concern) but he is still an above-average small forward, capable of defending, rebounding well at the position, and scoring when needed.
Lopez is a more undefined asset. In his four N.B.A. seasons, he has been an excellent scorer. But his rebounding has deteriorated badly over that time, with his rebounding percentage in his five games of action last season dropping below the rate of J.R. Smith, the Knicks' shooting guard. For a seven-foot center, that is simply astonishing.
The other problem with Lopez is that total of five games, which came from a foot injury that derailed his season. However, calling Lopez injury-prone overstates things: He played in all 82 Nets games in each of his three previous seasons. If he's managed to move past the foot injury, there's no reason to think he will continue to struggle to stay on the court. And for all his rebounding problems, Lopez's offense makes him a top-10 N.B.A. center.
But that rebounding issue makes who the Nets choose to play power forward of primary importance. Frankly, it is hard to see a better option than simply retaining Kris Humphries, who has averaged a double-double in consecutive seasons and is available to the Nets without the machinations of a sign-and-trade.
If the Nets put a starting lineup on the floor on opening night of Lopez-Humphries-Wallace-Johnson-Williams, they'll have five above-average players whose skills fit together nicely.
Beyond that, the Nets also have greater depth than they would have had if the Howard deal had gone through. From MarShon Brooks, a scorer off the bench, to Tyshawn Taylor, the just-drafted point guard out of Kansas, Reggie Evans to provide rebounding off the bench, Jerry Stackhouse to serve as veteran presence and small forward/shooting guard backup, the Nets have contributors up and down the roster.
The acquisition of Dwight Howard could have made them co-favorites in the Eastern Conference with Miami, and given them a clear step on the Knicks. But the group they now have will give people plenty of reason to fill the new arena till the end of the Brooklyn Nets' first regular season, and possibly for a while beyond.