So, Trade Brook Lopez? And if so, what is the Market?

Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Nick Collison, Russell Westbrook, Udonis Haslem, Mike Conley, Mark Gasol, and Nikola Pekovic.

 

Brook Lopez has been a Net for longer (consecutively) than every other NBA player has been with his current team.  8.5 years of service.  Atop or nearly atop the franchise leaderboard in multiple statistical categories.  The sole remaining player from the team’s New Jersey history (for that matter, the sole Net remaining from the year Jason Kidd coached the team).

 

You may like Lopez.  You may dislike him.  But he has left a mark on the Nets.

 

Will this season be his last mark?

 

The Case Against Trading Brook Lopez

 

            The decision to trade Lopez is not as simple as meets the eye for Brooklyn.  For starters, the draft pick and asset situation, and its affect on player recruitment, shows why trading Lopez may not be ideal.  Given the Nets lack of assets, the ability to add top tier (or even middle tier) talent in the draft, or on the trade market, is simply not present.  You cannot build through the draft without lottery picks – the lottery is the place where the league’s best talents are available.  You can “find diamonds in the rough” like the Nets have with Sean Kilpatrick, and hopefully have with players like Caris LeVert.  But the likelihood outside of the lottery is strong that the acquired players simply will not become starters, let alone high level starters or stars.  The players just do not have the type of exponential growth potential seen in the lottery.

 

The lack of assets, together with the Nets record, hurt the Nets in free agency.  Recent free agency history shows us that the league’s stars, and high level starters, will make big money and have a large role wherever they choose to sign.  Accordingly, those factors cannot sway free agents, and free agent decisions are grounded in one core principle, for the most part: where can I win the most.  Unfortunately, the answer to that question is not “Brooklyn,” so the Nets were essentially unable to sign any impact free agent with free choice over his destination (that led to pursuing free agents who lack free choice given the false market – restricted free agents – and even then the Nets signed sixth men craving more).

 

In short, there is no path right now to the Nets acquiring players of Lopez’s caliber, but what the Nets need going forward are players of Lopez’s caliber and better.  The Nets have two legitimate NBA starters right now (maybe 2.5, as Booker can arguably start if your other four starters are excellent).  With the lack of picks, can they afford to go backwards?

 

Lopez is a very good player who actually wants to be a Net – that is something the Nets need more of, not less of.  He is a top five offensive center.  In addition, his rally from his multiple foot surgeries, and the fact that he is playing better than ever in spite of them, shows that he is an extremely hard worker who cares deeply for his craft and takes improvement seriously, despite his somewhat childish demeanor and outside interests.  Furthermore, in accepting at least two near trades away from the Nets, benchings, role changes, and personnel and coaching changes, Lopez has shown his value as a good soldier who puts the team first.

 

Indeed, much of the criticism of Lopez is grounded in the fact that he cannot be the lead player on a team.  The flaw in that criticism is that the Nets do not HAVE to make Lopez their lead piece in order to keep him.  In actuality, from the moment the Nets dealt for Deron Williams, it was never the Nets’ intent to make Lopez their lead piece – he always became their lead piece by accident due to the failings of Williams, and others.

 

It is true that by trading Lopez, the Nets can increase their asset pool somewhat.  However, this is what the Nets have at the moment in the way of picks over the next 4 years (they will regain a normal complement of picks in 2021):

 

2017: the Nets have the Celtics’ first rounder, which figures to fall, conservatively, in the 15-24 range.  In addition, if the Celtics’ second rounder is between picks 46-60, the Nets receive it (otherwise they never receive the pick): that appears unlikely as Boston is a playoff team.

 

2018: the Nets have no picks

 

2019 and 2020: the Nets have their first rounders, only

 

In short, over the next four years the Nets are out, at this moment, two lottery first rounders (provided they miss the next two playoffs, which appears likely), and four (perhaps three) second rounders.

 

Trading Lopez would replenish the cupboard, somewhat.  But it would not stock it.  Essentially, if the Nets deal Lopez, they are looking at the current roster outlook minus Lopez, and a less than normal complement of picks.  During a rebuild, the hope is to accrue extra picks, beyond what teams normally have, so that you can maximize the chances of turning assets into a star.  Dealing Lopez will not bring that, and the other veterans on the roster would be unable to bridge the gap.  Is there a point to becoming a contender, asset wise, but, unlike a contender, having the Nets current roster minus Lopez?

 

The Case For Trading Brook Lopez

 

            One key reason to deal Lopez: the lack of success the Nets had in the summer of 2016, and the summer of 2017 forecast in light of that failure.

 

For starters, there was nothing wrong with the Nets plan in the 2016 summer.  Whether it was Kent Bazemore or Marvin Williams, the Nets targeted the best unrestricted free agents that would meet with them.  The pitches simply did not work.  Williams and Bazemore chose the Hornets and Hawks because they were comfortable with their incumbent teams – and surely the chance to win more than in Brooklyn did not hurt.  Unrestricted free agents are tough to get, particularly for a bad team – they can go anywhere they want to go.  When those pitches did not work, the Nets switched gears to an easier to sign market of players – restricted free agents (RFA’s).  RFA’s are easier to sign because their incumbent teams, knowing they can match all offers, allow them to languish on the market, awaiting an offer to match.  Stars do not become RFA’s as their teams provide October deadline extensions to avoid the process, and teams are willing to allow mere starters and high end reserves to sit on the market.  Many bidders wind up scared off.  The player then looks, simply, for any bidder willing to pay them, and pressure a match (or a balk on a match).  These circumstances make it easier to sign RFA’s than unrestricted free agents, and the Nets pounced on them, properly, this summer – despite matches.  Again, one simple look at when players signed shows that the Nets, by signing Crabbe and Johnson this summer, lost out on no one – nobody significant signed as those offers were pending.

 

`           Alas, while the Nets’ strategy was correct, it still did not work, and may not work in 2017, either.  Indeed, the Rockets seem to want nothing to do with Donatas Motiejunas and the Nets still could not poach him.  Simply, teams dislike paying a player until forced to match a deal and faced with “you can pay to keep him or you lose him. History shows that teams overwhelmingly match RFA offers – the Nets ‘failure’ was no different than the typical course of events.

 

Still, the Nets’ failure must be considered in assessing the future plan.  This is a fair ranking of 2017 free agents: where do the Nets have measurable success?  Is there talent? Sure.  But also questions of who the Nets can actually get.

 

Why do Curry and Durant leave Golden State, and why would Kyle Lowry leave Toronto where he has made his career?  Why does Blake Griffin leave Los Angeles (unless he joins Russ in Oklahoma)?  CP3 figures to remain a Clipper or join a “banana boat” friend in New York or Chicago.  Does Gordon Hayward leave Utah and forego the five year max despite not being a star, and if so, does he do so not to go to a contender or to his college coach in Boston?  Does George Hill leave Utah, where he has had a big impact?  Dwyane Wade will be a Bull, Heat, or banana boat teammate next year.  Andre Iguodala and Pau Gasol will stay put or play for other winners, and Andrew Bogut too will likely latch on with a winner.  Derrick Rose seems to want to stay a Knick.  Rudy Gay is not helpful.  Rajon Rondo is hurtful.  Nobody wants Greg Monroe for a reason.  Jeff Teague is hurting the Pacers.  I cannot imagine Tony Allen leaving Memphis.  And JJ Redick will not join a high loss roster in Brooklyn.

 

Paul Millsap and Jrue Holiday may be poachable, but Millsap has established himself in Atlanta, and Holiday is arguably no upgrade over Lin given his now significant injury history. Danilo Gallinari will likely seek a payday and is no needle mover.  Taj Gibson is a nice defender but how does he move a program?  Serge Ibaka may leave Orlando but he is now on the downslide, a dangerous trend for a big. No other unrestricted free agent on the list is meaningful.

 

The RFA crowd?  That leaves Noel, Caldwell-Pope, Mirotic, Plumlee, Olynyk, Roberson, Porter, MCW, Baynes, and Burke.  Remember: the Nets would have to coax a team not to match.  Noel is intriguing, but figures to be dealt to a team that actually wants him – meaning a match would be certain.  Caldwell-Pope is a decent guard, but the Pistons like him with their young core at a position of weakness on their roster.  Mirotic is not as good as some believe, and the Bulls front office adores him.  Plumlee may be poachable, but is he worth $15 million?  And does he make the roster better with Lopez here?  Olynyk carries similar questions, and the Celtics like him.  The Thunder see Roberson as a part of their new core, and the Wizards are enjoying Porter’s growth.  As for MCW, Baynes, and Burke, is there even a point?  All three would not help the Nets, at all.

 

Some of this may sound pessimistic.  And sure, the Nets can, in theory, secure some of these players.  But the 2017 market is full of pitfalls for a 20-30 win team (in all likelihood) trying to pitch players on their program.

 

That leads to a key question.  If 2017 is another summer of marginally adding youth, and a small piece here or there to build with, can the Nets afford to waste another season losing with Lopez?  After all, if the Nets continue losing, Lopez is only going to get older.  He will not be 28 forever.  If Lopez leaves the Nets in 2 years or so in free agency without reaching the playoffs, then the Nets will have wasted Lopez’s value.  There are only two ways to secure value from Lopez at this point: building playoff teams with him as a key piece, or dealing him for future considerations.  If the Nets fail in free agency, lose around Lopez, and eventually see Lopez walk, that is the ultimate worst case scenario.

 

In addition, if the Nets stall on a Lopez trade, they risk losing value.  Playing his best basketball ever, with two full years on his contract, Lopez is arguably at his highest possible trade value, now.  With less years on his deal, and more age on his body, Lopez’s value decreases – it is hard to see the Nets finding a more optimal time to deal Lopez than this deadline.  And it is critical to deal players at their optimal value point.  Remember: Michael Carter Williams went from fetching a top 5 draft pick to fetching Tony Snell in short order.  Trade value changes – and how can Lopez’s rise from its current point?

 

The Conclusion?

 

Given the above, I believe the Nets should deal Brook Lopez this deadline.  The short term will be painful, but the Nets would finally be on the way toward building a roster the patient way.  The overwhelming Nets reality is that they cannot contend until at LEAST (in a perfect world) 2-3 years from now, when Lopez will be 31 and perhaps on the decline.  The Nets will maximize his value by dealing him now, at peak value, rather than seeing him exert prime years for a losing franchise for 2-3 years, and then letting him walk or dealing him for less in return.

 

So, What is the Market for Lopez

 

            The Nets’ inability to deal Lopez to date has not been due to his value, but due to, frankly, unforeseen circumstances.  The Thunder cringe at the unrestricted free agency market, so they avoided Lopez’s unrestricted free agency by dealing for restricted free agency controlled Enes Kanter in 2015 (despite what some fans say, that trade was never about choosing Kanter over Lopez, all things equal – it was a CBA move).  In addition, the Nets’ closeness at a Dwight deal, to the point that Dwight told friends and players he was going to Brooklyn, shows that the Nets had him in their plans – that deal also broke down by fluke.

 

Lopez has value.  However, with multiple teams set at center, who may want him.  Let’s explore a host of potential trades.

 

The “you can’t be serious” division: Brook, Bojan, LeVert, and RHJ, for DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Tolliver.

 

If the Kings deal Cousins because of his attitude and potential he will leave in 2018, they should try to get picks and kids in return.  To trade for a “compete now” piece in Lopez would be stupid. Alas, this is the Kings, and perhaps the thought for the dysfunctional franchise is more “save face” and less “do the right thing even if it’s unpopular.” The idea: we will be awful anyway, let’s at least be splashy and sell some tickets.

 

This trade would be a big risk for the Nets, in dealing much of their bare infrastructure for a player who can bolt in 1.5 seasons. In addition, dealing for a surly star talent hitting free agency without any assurances reeks of the Deron Williams trade – without the flexibility to stuff the roster to keep him that was there in 2011.  Furthermore, Cousins’ attitude problem has become out of control, and there is no reason to believe that would change in Brooklyn – perhaps a team with an established culture can ground him, but can a team with nothing in house like the Nets?  The likelihood that the Nets continue to lose and Cousins expresses unhappiness about that would be significant  — Cousins has not approached winning in Sacramento with more talent.  And if Cousins left for greener pastures in 2018, the Nets will have set back this prolonged rebuild even further.

 

At the same time, there is no path right now to a talent of Cousins’ caliber. Perhaps that would justify this risk (although I disagree).

 

I doubt the Kings would make this trade.  From their perspective, this would be a terrible trade.  But I do not trust the Kings to act in their best interest, and that’s why this trade made the list.

 

The “take advantage of a GM maybe needing to save his job” division: Lopez for Brandon Knight, Marquese Chriss, Tyson Chandler, and a 2018 first rounder.

 

Ryan McDonough has escaped the microscope in Phoenix, perhaps until now.  After a 48-34 rousing success in 2013-2014, the Suns have done nothing but tread downhill.  The Isaiah Thomas signing was a disaster because McDonough failed to capture the human element that three point guards playing together would become combustible and antagonistic, each believing they should lead, regardless of what the analytics may have said.  Then he ruined the team’s relationship with Goran Dragic.  Then he blamed the team’s failures on Jeff Hornacek.  Then he – in an under discussed possible sign of desperation – dealt the valuable potential top 5 Lakers pick for Brandon Knight.  You only get to hire so many coaches and lose for so many years before you as the GM are seen as the problem.

 

Lopez makes little sense for the Suns’ timeline given their roster.  And perhaps McDonough’s job is not in jeopardy.  But if it is, a GM in job survival mode will typically put self preservation over the interests of the franchise.

 

The Suns could spin this trade as turning Knight – who has fallen out of favor – and a bad contract in Chandler, into a legitimate starting center who can pair with Eric Bledsoe, Devin Booker, and TJ Warren going forward.  The Nets would be getting another competent point guard, and a look at two young assets.  Given the cap spike and lack of free agent interest in the Nets, the haul would be worth taking on Chandler’s contract.

 

The “this feels like fair value” division:

 

Lopez for Asik, Ajinca, Hield, and a 2018 first round pick.

 

The Nets would be getting the sixth pick in the 2016 NBA draft in Buddy Hield, and, by getting a first round pick in 2018, would be adding to their stable of youth.  Asik and Ajinca are bad contracts, but the cap spike renders their contracts less brutal, and they can provide semi serviceable play.

 

As for the Pelicans, when you have a star the clock is ticking and Anthony Davis will eventually develop wandering eye if the losing keeps up. The Pelicans would be sacrificing youthful assets to add a win now piece, but they do need to think about how to build a roster sooner rather than later to make sure Davis sticks around.

 

 

Lopez for Dunn, Muhammad, and Pekovic, or for Rubio, Mohammed, and a 2017 first round pick.

 

The rumblings that Tom Thibodeau (as coach and GM) will try to accelerate the Wolves’ timetable are constant.  If Thibodeau believes he can employ Lopez in his defense, he would potentially have interest in him, as a center next to Karl Anthony Towns and in front of Gorgui Dieng.

 

In the first package, the Nets would be getting a rookie just picked top five in the draft, and a look at Shabazz Muhamad before deciding whether to pay him.  In the second package, the Nets would be adding a point guard to a team desperately needing better guard play, also looking at Muhammad, and getting Minnesota’s first rounder, which will likely fall in the top 5-10.

 

 

Lopez for Clarkson, Mozgov, and either a 2021 first rounder, Ivan Zubac, or a 2017 second rounder.

 

            The Lakers future vision is becoming clear under Luke Walton.  It is true that Clarkson is a part of it.  However, it is also true that Russell and Randle are seen as their two cornerstones, above Clarkson in that regard.

 

The Lakers signed Mozgov to bring a high character player who is well liked, and who can bring professionalism.  Lopez can do that, as a much better player for the Lakers, and he can serve as a core piece in a manner that Mozgov clearly cannot.  Clarkson is a talent, but as a scoring combo guard, the Lakers can find another on the market.

 

Moving on Clarkson would give the Nets a younger player to place next to their core, and Mozgov would provide coverage up front. The problem with the Lakers is past deals have ravaged their assets – the first available first rounder is in 2021.  And if a first rounder does not come with Clarkson and Mozgov, is there much of a purpose to the deal?

 

 

Lopez for Sam Dekker, 2017 first, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, and KJ McDaniels

           

            In what was a buried note in a great Zach Lowe column, it appears that owner Leslie Alexander meddled in Daryl Morey’s free agency last summer by assuming a larger role in the process, in an effort to improve his roster.  The sourced report is no surprise – Morey has been notorious for sitting, deliberately, prioritizing space and assets over player acquisition, unless the acquisition is a star.  Morey has been allergic to spending on non stars – until the Rockets suddenly splurged on role players this past summer in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.  Those feel like Alexander moves, and do not fit Morey’s GM profile.

 

How does that relate to the Nets?  If Alexander is putting a premium on winning now, Lopez could provide an upgrade over Clint Capela at center.  The Nets, for dealing him, would pick up two decent young assets in Dekker and the talented Rockets’ first, and a third speculative young asset in KJ McDaniels.  This trade has many component parts, but that is the only way to make the money work here.

 

 

Lopez for Monroe and Thon Maker, or Monroe, Rishad Vaughn, and a 2017 first rounder.

           

            Jason Kidd tried to bring Lopez with him to Milwaukee.  The Bucks are trying to dump Monroe, and they would be glad to turn him into Lopez.  In the first package, the Nets would get a shot at evaluating lottery pick Thon Maker, while getting Monroe for the present.  In the second package, the Nets would get last year’s 17th pick, and another pick likely to fall in that range, in addition to adding Monroe.

 

 

Lopez for Amir Johnson, Jaylen Brown, and Boston’s 2018 first rounder

 

            Lopez does not rebound much but presumably would help Boston’s rebounding if they slotted Horford to the 4 to play alongside him.  In addition, Boston has a great motion offense, and a motion offense can always find a way to get the ball to a great scoring center.  Finally, the Celtics have continued to hold their assets for a star, but the availability of a star for the foreseeable future is unclear, unless the Celtics are willing to take a risk on Cousins (who himself may not be available).

 

Boston, by making this trade, would keep the Nets’ valuable 2017 and 2018 picks in their war chest for another move, yet would still upgrade their roster succinctly in the short term.  The Nets, for their troubles, would receive the third pick in this year’s draft, and a first rounder that figures to fall in the 18-24 range.

 

 

THE FOLLOWING FRANCHISES DID NOT MAKE THE “LOPEZ TRADE” LIST

 

The “we’re set at center, thanks for playing” crowd: Atlanta (Dwight), Denver (Jokic), Detroit (Drummond), Indiana (Turner), Los Angeles Clippers (Jordan), Memphis (Gasol), Miami (Whiteside), Orlando (Vucevic Biyombo and Ibaka), Philadelphia (Embiid and a logjam), San Antonio (Gasol and Aldridge), Utah (Gobert)
The little to trade division: Charlotte (Kaminsky), Chicago (Lopez, with little in the way of tradeable pieces), Cleveland (little to trade, and who can forget LeBron believing Brandon Jennings was better than Lopez), Dallas (little to trade, and Lopez makes no sense given the impending rebuild), Golden State (nothing to trade, and cap strapped to keep Durant given lack of bird rights), New York (nothing to deal in return), Oklahoma City (they passed on Lopez in 2015 out of being allergic to free agency, and that was before losing Durant to the process and paying Adams), Portland (no sensible deals), Toronto (no sensible deals), Washington (significant money tied into Gortat and Mahinmi)

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