EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Lionel Hollins has been at odds with Brook Lopez at times this season. But that doesn’t mean he wants a breakup.
“I don’t worry about whether he’s going to be a free agent, whether he’s going to be back, or anything like that,” Hollins said. “Obviously I’d like for him to be back. I hope he’s going to be back. But those decisions are not mine, and I don’t worry about it.”
When pressed further about his role in the team’s decision-making process, Hollins grew exasperated. “I just said I want him back. How many damn times do I have to say that? Damn.”
Hollins then turned to each individual reporter, repeating the mantra: “I want him back. I want him back. I want him back. Okay, everybody got it? I want him back. I want him back. But it’s still his call.”
Message received, loud and clear.
Lopez can opt out of his contract this offseason if he wants to secure a long-term deal, or he can choose to opt in for one more season at a little over $16 million, risk that he won’t suffer another injury to his shaky right foot, and capitalize on the NBA salary cap booming in the 2016 offseason. The decision is in his hands. I’ve already written about the pros and cons, so if you want to ruminate on that, the link is below.
“That’s always out of my control,” Hollins said. “I can say I want him back all I want[note]And he did![/note]. If some team’s offered him $25 million a year, and we say as an organization they don’t want to pay that, that’s not my call. So I have no control of that.”
Lopez said he hasn’t thought about his upcoming free agency, despite the significance of the decision, deflecting questions about it by citing the team’s success.
The old-school coach Hollins and scoring center Lopez struggled to mesh early in the season, as the two tried to figure out the other’s style. Hollins said his “epiphany” moment came before the team’s February 6th win over the New York Knicks. “For me, I understood that he wasn’t going to be a dominant post-up player, and that we had to play differently with him to be effective,” Hollins said. Lopez scored 22 points on 11-18 shooting that night, adding nine rebounds and six blocks off the bench. “I just told him, ‘I’m not going to try to make you somebody you’re not, just be who you are.'”
Lopez remembers the conversation, though “not extremely vividly,” adding the two came to an agreement of sorts. “I think it was just really realizing what we expected of each other, and finding the situation that worked out best for the player I am and what he wants to do with the entire team here,” Lopez said.
Hollins also believes the team’s improved play as a whole, as well as the acquisition of Thaddeus Young at the trade deadline, has helped Lopez open his offensive game.
“I think the way we’re running offense, and he’s around the basket a lot more. He’s not taking as many jump shots as he used to, and either we’re running a four man (power forward) in the pick-and-roll and he’s down low — we’re not spreading him anymore — and when he’s in the pick-and-roll he’s in the paint. So if somebody else shoots, he’s nearer the glass, and that’s key to getting offensive rebounds, being around the glass.”
Heading into that Knicks game, Lopez averaged 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds in 27.2 minutes per game on 49.8 percent shooting, losing his starting spot to Mason Plumlee. Since, he’s averaged 18.7 points and 8.6 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per game, shooting 51.7 percent from the field and re-gaining his starting spot in early March. In his last six games, Lopez has topped 30 points four times, after hitting that mark just once all season, and he’s in the running for Eastern Conference Player of the Week.