The Miami Heat have won two straight championships playing small ball; if someone is going to beat them this year, they’re going to have to take advantage of that.
The Heat play without a true center at all times (Chris “I’ll throw myself out of position for a chance at a block”Andersen isn’t a center, sorry). That being said, who’s the guy likely to lead the Brooklyn Nets in scoring this season? Brook Lopez.
Lopez, a 7′, 25 year-old center, could be the kind of player who can finally knock the Heat out of playoffs, although his contributions will be necessary on both ends of the court. During his career, Lopez has been heavily criticized for his lack of toughness, strength and rebounding ability, and rightfully so. Despite having elite height and length, Lopez has always put up awfully small rebounding numbers, averaging 6.0 in the 2010-11 season and 6.9 in the 2012-13 season. I’ve heard an argument made that Lopez’s rebounding numbers were so low because he had Kris Humphries and Reggie Evans playing next to him, but that’s a hollow argument in my opinion.
This season, Lopez will be flanked in the frontcourt by Kevin Garnett. Garnett was once a hyper-athletic and deathly skinny elite power forward and in the twilight of his career, he has managed to stay serviceable. Garnett is still a solid rebounder and has evolved into a great jump shooter, and he should be able to mask Lopez’s deficiencies on the defensive end and on the boards.
With Garnett’s positive attributes hiding Lopez’s negative qualities, the Nets championship run will still revolve around Lopez’s increased aggressiveness on the offensive end. For long stretches of time, Lopez is invisible on the court. That can be attributed to both his lack of a killer instinct and to his coaching staff and main facilitator, Deron Williams. If the Nets want to have a chance at winning this thing this season, Jason Kidd and Deron Williams will need to focus on getting the ball to Lopez early and often, and in the right places on the floor.
On paper, the Nets are absolutely stacked, as their combination of seasoned veterans and depth should be enough to keep them firmly in the championship conversation all year. With a starting lineup that holds four possible future Hall of Famers in Deron Williams (probably will fall short unless he can get a title), Paul Pierce (mortal lock), Kevin Garnett (ditto) and Lopez (he’s 25, so he’s still got a shot if he can tweak his game and win more) and Joe Johnson, they have one of the better starting fives in the game. Then, they are able to bring Alan Anderson, Andrei Kirilenko, Reggie Evans, Andray Blatche, Jason Terry and Shaun Livingston off the bench, which is more depth than they actually need and depth is always something you could have more of, but can’t have less than.
Maybe the Nets are over the hill, but maybe they’re not. The first idea is boring and dismissive, but the second is though provoking and exciting to believe. Can Kidd push Williams’ game to the next level? Maybe. Can Williams’ veteran teammates make him look better? Probably. Can Johnson still stand there and shoot 3s? Hell, yeah. Can Lopez become a little tougher and look a little better next to Garnett? He probably will (Osmosis Lopez will be his new nickname if he does). Can Pierce still rise to the occasion in clutch situations? Hopefully. Can Terry still provide depth off the bench? Maybe.
If three quarters of these things happen, the Nets will have a shot at beating the Heat in the playoffs. Brooklyn has the size to beat Miami and maybe, just maybe, they’ll have enough grit and veteran presence to pull off a second-round upset.
In September, the maybes are always exciting. In April, we may know better.