Moke Hamilton, NBA AnalystWhen your franchise player is a 25-year-old center who just underwent the third surgical procedure in his ailing right foot, there is cause for concern.
When your $100 million payroll only wins you 12 of your first 33 games, there is reason to be bitter.
But even as Brook Lopez is set to be M.I.A. for the remainder of the season, the obituary on his career, or even his life as one of the Eastern Conference’s more efficient centers should not be written just yet.
High-fives, hand slaps and smiles have been seldom seen sights at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center this season, and after the Nets beat up on the Kyrie Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night, 89-82, that remained true.
Despite the win for the club, the story of the night was Lopez. Earlier on Saturday, the Nets officially ruled him out for the remainder of the season after he underwent surgery on Saturday morning to repair the fractured fifth metatarsal of his right foot.
Lopez also had a second procedure, an osteotomy, which was performed to alleviate the weight and pressure placed upon the fifth metatarsal and reduce the odds of re-injury in the future.
On that, Mikhail Prokhorov and Billy King will certainly hope, because any chance of the Nets becoming a championship contender lies squarely on Lopez and his continued development as one of the league’s few, efficient back-to-the-basket centers.
The very simple question as it relates to Lopez is how alarmed Nets fans should be over his persistent foot issues. Although the answer to that question is “very,” there is hope that he can eventually make a full recovery.
And as for the immediate future, there is hope that these Nets can turn things around. Believe it or not.
The Chinese-born and recently retired Yao Ming’s career was cut short by a myriad of injuries to his left foot—bone spurs, bone breaks and stress fractures aplenty. Yao, according to the Xinhua News Agency, had about a pound of screws surgically implanted in his left foot as a result of multiple procedures aimed at curing his various ailments. He eventually succumbed after it became obvious that his body simply could not stand up to the rigors of being a professional athlete and retired just nine years after being selected with the first overall pick of the 2002 NBA Draft.
Yes, big men and repeated foot injuries are a concern, but not all end up with Yao’s sad ending.
Zydrunas Ilgaukas, known mostly as a former member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, remains the gold standard for a big man that overcame early foot woes.
After playing just 29 games over the three seasons spanning 1998-2001, Ilgauskas had an osteotomy procedure in 2001. After returning to the court on December 4, 2001, he would miss just 88 games over the next 10 years and become an NBA All-Star in the process.
At this point, it is equally plausible that Lopez could end up like Ilgauskas. There is no guarantee that he is destined to be the next Yao, and deep down inside, that is general manager Billy King’s hope.
“He had surgery, it was successful,” King said on Saturday night. “He’ll recover and be back playing.”
King was vague and short in response to a number of questions about Lopez’s future, but that is to be expected.
”We can’t speculate on [Lopez’s future],” he said. “I’m not gonna do that.”
His trepidation should come as no surprise, but it does not make King’s stance any less understandable. Wait and see on Lopez, especially considering the other thing that he has on his side—youth.
Though it seems like the center has been a Net forever—he is the current team’s longest tenured member—the 2013-14 season is just his sixth and he is still just 25 years old. The combination of his injury history and the two seasons and $33 million remaining on his contract will make trading him difficult, so the odds of him completing his current contract as a Net are high.
Whether or not he can do it making an Ilgauskas-like recovery remains to be seen, but at the very least, there is a precedent.
In the interim, the Nets will attempt to pick up the pieces of a lost season without him. If their last two games are an omen, however, things may be looking up. Without Lopez, the Nets may be better equipped to play a faster tempo and both Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce could benefit from a more open interior.
The Nets followed up their improbable 95-93 January 2 win at the Oklahoma City Thunder with Saturday’s victory and have now won consecutive games for the first time since winning three straight games over the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers in early December. With the next three games at Barclays Center, the Nets will not hit the road again until January 10—a blessing for an elderly team.
In fact, taking an even longer view, between now and the All-Star break, the team will play just six of their next 17 games on the road, and one of those road games is at Madison Square Garden against the Knicks—no travel required.
Despite all that has happened and all that has gone wrong, the Nets will wake up on January 5 just 3.5 games behind the fifth-seed Washington Wizards. That may say something negative about the quality of the NBA’s Eastern Conference, but it certainly says something positive for the team.
As their long road without Lopez officially got underway, the Nets did exactly what a team vying for a playoff spot should do—they defeated an inferior team, at home, in a game they needed to win. As the road continues, the competition will improve, but if the Nets can, even in Lopez’s absence, salvaging the season, amazingly, remains possible.
Moke Hamilton is the NBA Analyst for SNY.tv and contributes regularly to SNYNets.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MokeHamilton.