By Steve Lichtenstein
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When you watch the basketball fiasco that is the current iteration of the Brooklyn Nets, it's hard to comprehend how this franchise won a playoff round under then-coach Jason Kidd only two years ago.
Those Nets might as well have played in a different dimension -- just about everyone associated with that on-court product has left Barclays Center. There's a new general manager (Sean Marks) in charge to pick up the shattered pieces left over from Billy King's reign, an interim coach (Tony Brown) to replace Kidd's replacement (Lionel Hollins), and a 93.3 percent roster turnover.
Center Brook Lopez is the only holdover from those relatively glorious days.
And even he is a different player from the one that Kidd mentored in his sole season on Brooklyn's sideline before engineering an escape to Milwaukee.
You may recall that it was Lopez's season-ending foot injury in December 2013 that set in motion Kidd's daring gambit with a smaller lineup. The insertion of guard Shaun Livingston into the starting five propelled Brooklyn to 33 wins in its next 47 games after a 10-21 start.
At the time, Lopez was an All-Star but as a one-dimensional player -- a scorer who did little else to help his team's cause. The immobile 7-footer's absence freed the Nets' defense to become more active in forcing turnovers while on the other end, the space inside was cleared for drive-and-kicks and post-up inversions.
Lopez had bad habits. His reaction to double teams was to force difficult shots, he was often caught in no-man's land defending opponents' pick-and-rolls, and showed disdain for rebounding and hustle plays.
Those were the reasons why I've been a Brook-basher for much of the four years I've been covering the Nets.
Every year I've crossed my fingers hoping King would come to his senses and trade Lopez for players with qualities more in tune with the modern game -- more athletic and with 3-point shooting range. After last season, I wasn't convinced that the Nets did the right thing by re-signing the free agent Lopez to a three-year, $63.5 million contract.
While it remains to be seen whether Lopez can still be the focal point of an NBA playoff contender, I will admit that his evolution this season into a more complete player has, in my mind, transformed him from a scapegoat into a sympathetic figure.
Yes, he's still a volume point-producer, but now he's making sincere efforts to do so much more -- like passing and protecting the rim, things that he's been pretty bad at for most of his career. And he has been undeterred by his environment, which reeks from Brooklyn's 18-48 record.
I can only speculate as to the underlying root of this evolution: maybe Lopez needed extra time to fully recover from the multiple foot injuries which kept him out of 145 games in the three seasons leading up to the end of 2014. Maybe it was Hollins' constant badgering in his season-plus coaching Lopez that got to him. Or maybe it's just the maturity that comes with being 27 years old.
Whatever did the trick, Kidd has noticed the difference.
"(Lopez is) playing at a very high level," Kidd said prior to his Bucks' 109-100 victory in Brooklyn on Sunday night. "With Brook, we all know he can score the ball, but now he's finding his teammates and then he's also rebounding the ball and he's blocking shots. So he has the total package. I think he's had a heck of a year."
Lopez's numbers have borne that out: in addition to his career-high 20.8 points per game on 51.5 percent shooting from the floor, he's averaging 8.0 rebounds and 1.9 blocked shots per game. In 65 games this season, Lopez has 120 assists; in his previous 163 games going back to 2012, he aggregated 136 assists.
His play goes beyond the "great stats on a bad team" template. It's the diversity that has been most impressive.
Lopez is still best in catch-and-shoot situations off of pocket passes in the paint or on pick-and-pops (his 292 points scored when he is the "roll man" only trails the Pelicans' Anthony Davis, according to NBA.com). But he also leads the league with 368 points scored off post-ups. He is showing more confidence driving to the rim instead of settling for mid-range jump shots.
Many teams, like the Bucks, will send a second defender at Lopez, hoping to force a turnover or a bad shot. Lopez has gotten better at seeing the floor to beat those schemes, making him more effective in the facilitator role that he promised to take on during training camp.
"You could see that his game has gotten better," Kidd said. "It's just a matter of time when (the Nets) get pieces around him that you can't just double-team him and take advantage of making him give the ball up to someone else."
And therein lies the tragedy.
Lopez is stuck on a team that provides him with little support. As a traditional big man, he needs to be fed the ball. And if he finds an open man, that player has to knock down the shot.
Unfortunately, he's been at the mercy of turnover-prone point guards Donald Sloan and Shane Larkin and erratic wings Bojan Bogdanovic, Wayne Ellington (who sat out Sunday's game with an illness) and Markel Brown. Only forward Thaddeus Young has produced consistent efforts on a nightly basis.
Even on defense, an area where Lopez will never be considered elite, he has been let down by his teammates despite better efforts.
There's Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek who freaked out the Nets on Sunday with a mesmerizing triple-double of 28 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds, blowing by Bogdanovic as if he were a traffic cone. There's Lopez properly stepping up to help. There's Antetokounmpo dishing to an open Greg Monroe (or Jabari Parker, or Jarryd Bayless, or Khris Middleton). With no one helping the helper, there's another two of the Bucks' 66 points in the paint.
Lopez put up 20 points through the first three quarters on Sunday, but was shut out in the fourth quarter. Milwaukee took advantage of 12 (!!!) Nets turnovers in the final frame to overcome a seven-point deficit over the final 8:45. If not for D-League call-up Sean Kilpatrick's 13 fourth-quarter points in the Yonkers native's home debut, the damage would have been a lot worse.
After the game, Lopez sat slumped in his chair, soaking his worn feet in a large bucket of ice. As he bemoaned his team's turnovers that led to yet another crunch-time meltdown, Lopez's eyes expressed a strain beyond any physical ailment.
You just wanted to tell him, as Robin Williams said to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, "It's not your fault. It's not your fault."
Kidd took a shot at his old employer's culture.
"It's not fair to (blame Lopez)," Kidd said. "There's been a lot of change. Coaches, teammates, practice facilities, arenas."
In his eight seasons in New Jersey and Brooklyn, Lopez has played for eight different head coaches. It will almost surely become nine in nine next season, whenever Marks concludes his search for Brown's successor.
Marks then has to make over the roster without the benefit of a first-round draft pick. Many of Lopez's current teammates will be playing elsewhere.
One of these days, the Nets will surround Lopez with the right mix and we'll find out how good he really has become.
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