The Brooklyn Nets, to the surprise of everyone, are tied with the Atlanta Hawks in their first-round series. A team that got into the playoffs thanks to a tiebreaker with the Indiana Pacers is hanging with the squad with the top record in the East, and if you watch the games, it actually makes sense. The Nets are scrambling on defense to prevent open looks and mixing in some movement to their typically slow and isolation-heavy offense.
There are many reasons for the turnaround that got Brooklyn in the playoffs and is now allowing them to compete with the Hawks. Among the most significant ones is the play of center Brook Lopez, who has been fantastic so far. Yet because we’re talking about a dysfunctional franchise like the Nets, that actually creates an interesting problem for them.
The Nets tried to trade Lopez at the deadline, only to see a reported deal with the Thunder that would have netted them Reggie Jackson fall through. Lopez can opt out and enter free agency this coming season or opt in, stay with the Nets one more season at $17 million and enter free agency in 2016, when the cap is set to explode because of the league’s new TV deal. When he was struggling during the regular season, Lopez was a lock to opt in, as it was unlikely he’d make that kind of money on a new contract. Now he might.
The best free agent center on the market is Marc Gasol, but he’s likely to return to Memphis. The same applies to DeAndre Jordan and the Clippers. Al Jefferson has already said that he plans to opt in on the last year of his contract. That leaves Tyson Chandler, Greg Monroe and potentially Roy Hibbert as Lopez’s direct competition in free agency. If he finishes the playoffs like he started them, not even the concerns about his foot injuries would hurt his stock enough to prevent him from landing a lucrative, multi-year deal.
While Lopez is now facing two good options, the Nets are in a bit of a lose-lose situation. Lopez finished the season averaging 17 points, seven rebounds and two blocks and was essentially a 20-9-2 in March and April. He has upped his rebounds to 11 per game in the playoffs and is anchoring a solid Nets defense by allowing lower than 40 percent on field goals he contests at the rim. He has been an elite center for the past couple of months. How can him returning hurt them? It’s all about money.
Bringing Lopez back long term at near the max makes little sense for a team that’s not contending any time soon. If Lopez opts in, they would have over $70 million — above the $68.5 million projected cap — in committed salary to just seven players. If they bring back Alan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic and Thaddeus Young, they’d once again have one of the highest payrolls in the league but no chance to win it all. The Nets could attempt to trade him, but they’d have to take salary back and wouldn’t get much for what could be a one-year rental. The best-case scenario with Lopez back is once again a low playoff seed.
That scenario of mediocrity, however, is preferable to the other option. If Lopez leaves, the Nets would face a serious talent downgrade. Mason Plumlee is an intriguing young talent but can’t create his own shot, which is something the Nets need in their current system. On a high pace, spread pick-and-roll offense, Plumlee has huge Chandler-like potential. In the glacial Nets offense, he would be a garbage man. If Young also opts out and leaves, the Nets would go from having an above-average big man rotation to lacking size and talent in the blink of an eye.
That’s not a problem for teams rebuilding through the draft. The Lakers could roll with Carlos Boozer and Jordan Hill because winning wasn’t a priority, as it hurt their lottery odds. The Nets, however, don’t have any of their own picks until 2019. The only mediocre team that has no incentive to lose is Brooklyn. They need to field a competitive team if they hope to grab the attention of their new fanbase. Not at the expense of hemorrhaging money to the point of not being a viable enterprise, of course, but they can’t rationally tear things down and expect the fans to remain loyal with no young stars coming.
The situation with Lopez is a cruel reminder that despite saving their season with this little playoff run, the Nets are in a very tough spot for the next few years. An ideal scenario would see them retain Lopez and trade him for a young player or a draft pick and dumping one of Joe Johnson or Deron Williams on a desperate team. Unfortunately, that seems really unlikely. Instead, the Nets will be forced to decide between remaining relevant or striving for profitability. So enjoy the rest of the run, Nets fans. Things could turn ugly as soon as it ends.