For those of you just waking up from whatever you did Friday night, I’ve got bad news. Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez suffered a broken fifth metatarsal bone in his right foot, the same bone in the same foot he injured for the first time exactly two years ago today, and the team expects that he’ll be out for the rest of the season.
The injury is a devastating blow to Brooklyn’s plans. Even with Lopez healthy for 17 of the team’s first 26 games, the team has sputtered out to a 9-17 start, with a net rating between the New York Knicks and Orlando Magic. They were only even marginally in the playoff race because of the struggles plaguing every Eastern Conferece team that’s not the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat.
A lavish spending spree over the last two seasons has ended with a first-round exit to a depleted Chicago Bulls team and various injuries to four of the team’s six best players in the first two months. The idea that this team could contend for a championship was fading rapidly even with their star center healthy; with him out, you can close that door. It all but ends the last chance for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to make one final championship run together, which was the exact reason Garnett waived his no-trade clause in July to join the Nets.
I could point to the Synergy numbers that paint Lopez as the best center in the league, a dominating post scorer and offensive player whose defensive ability had started to shine this year. I could point to his early production, on pace for career-bests in field goal percentage, true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, player efficiency rating, defensive rating, free throw percentage, points per game, free throw rate, turnover rate, and win shares per 48 minutes.
But if you didn’t know that already, you kind of knew that already. This season was the next step in Lopez’s evolution, as a 25-year old somehow improved on his career season with more than just two offensive weapons flanking him in the starting lineup. His touch inside had gotten somehow better, his confidence in singularly defend the paint reaching new levels. He is the only homegrown star on the team and the only one still in development, which makes this latest injury all the more cruel. The major knock on him — his softness — loses luster when you consider that he played the final 9:53 of Friday night’s game on that broken foot.
The Nets likely don’t have plans to look beyond their own roster to replace Lopez, and could feature a number of different starting lineups. Garnett could play more of his minutes at center, where he’s spent the majority of the last two seasons in Boston. The Nets could re-introduce Pierce to the starting lineup, or try Andray Blatche or Mirza Teletovic. All come with their various strengths and weaknesses: Garnett doesn’t often play extended minutes, Teletovic stretches the floor offensively but struggles with an inconsistent stroke, and Blatche mixes moments of absurd genius with pure absurdity.
There is no next step. This is the step. The Nets could blow it up, auction off all of their pieces to the highest bidder, and start fresh, but what would be the point? They don’t have a first-round draft pick this year. They have the worse of the two picks between their own and the Atlanta Hawks in 2015 and 2017. They don’t have a first-round draft pick in 2016 or 2018. They would be hard-pressed to find a team willing to give up a first-round pick for any of their current, aging, highly priced stars. The Nets sold off everything to win now, starting with the trade for Deron Williams in 2011, and every move they’ve made has made that window even shorter.
They could make a small move to bolster their frontcourt, but no move will replace what Lopez brought. His absence leaves the team reeling, staring down a future they don’t have and a present they don’t want. It’s a tragedy Shakespeare himself would’ve had trouble concocting: the homegrown player with the largest window will disappear from the team’s plans for the only window the team’s cared about.