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Awful news for the Brooklyn Nets and their fans this Saturday: All-Star center and leading scorer Brook Lopez has broken his right foot and will likely miss the rest of the 2013-14 NBA season. The news was first reported Saturday by Gary Tanguay of Comcast SportsNet New England and subsequently confirmed by multiple sources.
The Nets confirmed the initial report late Saturday morning:
Brook Lopez has been diagnosed with a fractured fifth metatarsal of the right foot, #Nets GM Billy King announced today.
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) December 21, 2013
They stopped short of declaring Lopez out for the remainder of the season, though:
No timetable was given, as the team said it will issue a further update after it consults with its team physicians. — Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) December 21, 2013
We'd certainly love to see Lopez return this season — he's been virtually the only bright spot for the Nets, who entered the season with high hopes of title contention after the summer import of veterans Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Andrei Kirilenko, but who have slogged through early injuries, persistent coaching struggles and subpar early play from those highly touted vets en route to a 9-17 record. But that seems more like a hopeful diagnosis than a realistic one, considering the nature of the injury and Lopez's daunting history with right foot injuries.
When exactly Lopez suffered the fracture remains unclear. Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN New York cites a league source who said the injury "is thought to have [occurred] in the second half, possibly in the third quarter," of the Nets' 121-120 overtime loss to the Philadelphia 76ers on Friday night. Looking back at the tape, though, Lopez hit the deck pretty hard twice in the fourth quarter — once after being fouled in the paint by Evan Turner with just under five minutes remaining in the fourth, after which he "winced and rubbed his right foot" while on the ground:
And again while rolling to the basket in the final two minutes, picking up a charge on the play:
Whenever Lopez suffered the injury, he stayed in to finish the game, playing more than 44 minutes and scoring 22 points with seven rebounds, two assists and a block. He did not speak with media after the game.
The 7-footer fractured the fifth metatarsal in his right foot just before the start of the 2011-12 season and once again later that season, when an MRI exam revealed that a March injury initially thought to be an ankle sprain actually stemmed from the break never healing properly. The injuries limited him to just five games during that lockout-shortened campaign, after he had played all 82 games in each of his first three pro seasons following the Nets selecting him 10th overall out of Stanford in the 2008 NBA draft.
After a return to health and All-Star-level play that led to the first playoff berth of his NBA career last season, Lopez underwent surgery in June to replace a screw that had been surgically implanted in his foot to support the bone, but had bent over time. And now, for the fourth time in less than three years, one of the NBA's best big men has been felled by this tiny little bone.
Losing Lopez, who ranked in the league's top 10 in Player Efficiency Rating in the second year of the four-year maximum contract extension he signed in the summer of 2012, could prove devastating for the playoff hopes of a Nets team already struggling to both score (they rank 15th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession) and defend (27th in points allowed per possession) at competitive levels.
The big man had been the Nets' most dominant offensive weapon in the early part of the season, averaging 20.7 points per game on 56.3 percent shooting from the field, making 81.7 percent of his free throws and attempting 6.8 freebies per game — all career highs. Nearly 40 percent of his offensive possessions have come in the post this year, according to Synergy Sports Technology's game-charting data, and while there's an advancing school of thought that low-post touches rank among the league's least effective offensive plays, that wasn't true in Lopez's hands, as he'd averaged 1.16 points per post-up possession, the third-best mark in the NBA, and scored (whether with a bucket or by getting to the foul line) on more than 60 percent of those trips. Dumping the ball into Lopez on the block had been one of the league's most reliable transactions through the season's first 26 games; now, the Nets will have to look elsewhere for easy money.
Lopez's impact might be felt even more on the other end, though, which might come as something of a surprise to fans familiar with his routinely low defensive rebounding numbers and lumbering strides. While the Nets defense hasn't exactly been lights out with Lopez on the floor this season, allowing 102.7 points-per-100 in 534 minutes with him (equivalent to the just-below-middle-of-the-pack marks put up by the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards this season), Brooklyn has been downright awful without him, giving up 109.1-per-100 in 729 minutes with him out of the lineup; that's even worse than the dead-last Utah Jazz.
Nets opponents take a higher percentage of shots in the paint without the 7-foot Lopez there to clog up space, and shoot much more successfully — Brooklyn's opponents have made 56.5 percent of their shots in the lane in non-Lopez minutes, compared to just 48 percent with him in the middle. Quiet as it's kept, Lopez has become one of the league's better rim protectors, too. He has ranked in the league's top 10 in block percentage (the share of opponents' field goal attempts a player rejects during his time on the court) in each of the last two seasons, and Nets opponents have shot just 40.3 percent on attempts at the rim against Lopez this year, according to NBA.com's player tracking data — that's the lowest such mark of any player averaging at least 20 minutes per game who defends at least five at-rim attempts, below even Defensive Player of the Year-caliber bigs Roy Hibbert, Tyson Chandler, Serge Ibaka, Tim Duncan and Joakim Noah.
With Lopez gone, the Nets lose their defensive centerpiece and most reliable source of offense, placing a significantly larger burden on Brooklyn's other high-priced veterans to band together and fill in the blanks. Though Brooklyn might seek a disabled player exception after losing Lopez, general manager Billy King reportedly isn't going to look outside the organization for a replacement big man. Garnett will likely slide to center, as he did for the Boston Celtics in recent years, alongside floor-spacing stretch four Mirza Teletovic, and the Nets will ask reserve bigs Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans and rookie Mason Plumlee to play larger roles. Recently returned point guard Deron Williams will be tasked with shouldering a larger offensive burden, as will wings Joe Johnson (who missed Friday's game for personal reasons) and Paul Pierce (six games removed from a broken right hand and starting to look much more like the player he was in kelly green).
All is not yet lost, because the East is that bad; even with all their injuries and struggles, the Nets entered Saturday just 2 1/2 games out of home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern playoffs. Continued strong play from Williams, Pierce and Johnson could buoy the Nets' offense, and coach Jason Kidd could get boosts on both sides of the ball from the impending returns of backup forward Kirilenko (back spasms) and reserve guard Terry (bruised left knee), neither of whom have played in a month. But any remaining hope of getting everyone healthy and harmonious enough to put a scare into the likes of the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers this season would seem to go out the window without Lopez to anchor Brooklyn's attack and defense. It's a downright shame for one of the league's most-overlooked top performers; one can only hope that persistent foot injuries don't scuttle Lopez's incredible promise as they have so many other great big man who have come before.
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