According to all the preseason commentary, Brook Lopez was nearing the end of his Nets career because of his value as a trade chip and questions about his ability to adjust to a new system under first-year coach Kenny Atkinson. But as this season winds down, Lopez has proved more valuable than ever to the Nets after re-inventing himself as their best three-point shooter and growing into a leadership role.
Now Lopez is on the verge of establishing himself as the all-time leading scorer in franchise history, needing only 35 points in the final three games to surpass Buck Williams’ record of 10,440 points. There’s an outside shot he could do it against his brother Robin when the Nets face the Bulls on Saturday night at Barclays Center.
“I’ve been trying not to think about it,” Lopez said after the Nets’ season-high three-game winning streak ended Thursday in Orlando. “It would be something to get it against Robin, but I’m much more concerned with getting the win, of course.”
Some still question whether Lopez’s future with the Nets extends much beyond the end of his ninth season, but he clearly is focused on leading a strong finish that the Nets can build on next season. Now that point guard Jeremy Lin is healthy after missing 45 games, the Nets’ midseason futility has given way to a surprising 10-11 turnaround in their past 21 games.
Lopez said the final three games against the Bulls at home and the Celtics and Bulls on the road are important to demonstrate that the Nets’ progress is real. “We want to play how we’re capable for the last few games, and it will be a great litmus test for us because these are very good teams we’re playing against,” Lopez said.
Lin echoed those thoughts, noting that Boston is fighting for the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs and Chicago is trying to hang on to its current seventh seed. “That’s a great test, but I think we should, at this point, believe we can play with anybody,” Lin said. “Maybe that’s a little bit arrogant or biased, but with this last 20-something games, we should feel like we can play with anybody.”
The fact that the Nets didn’t quit on the season after suffering through a 1-27 stretch before Lin’s return from his injuries to a regular role is, to a large extent, a credit to the persistence Lopez showed to maintain a positive locker room atmosphere. In the past, Lopez took a backseat to older veterans, but he assumed that role this season at the urging of Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks.
“I’m in a new position this year,” Lopez said. “It’s different for me, so there’s a learning curve there. I’m just trying to be the best possible leader I can.”
In the darkest days, it usually was Lopez standing in front of the cameras and notepads taking much of the blame for whatever went wrong. “Sean and I were on him, and we knew it was going to take time,” Atkinson said. “He’s shown it in so many different ways. It’s not just on the court. There’s stuff off the court that he’s doing.”
The Nets had a day off Wednesday in Orlando, and it was Lopez who organized a trip to Disney World for the entire Nets traveling party, including family members traveling with the players. “That he included all of us, everybody, that’s the kind of growth,” Atkinson said.
“He’s not a yeller. He’s a real positive spirit in the locker room. This offseason, there’s even more he can do. ‘Where you working out? What are you doing?’ I think there’s levels that he can take it to.”
Things easily might have gone south between Lopez and Atkinson because of the changes asked of him and the early-season playing-time limits. At times, Lopez showed hints of frustration, but he committed to Atkinson’s program.
“That’s leadership,” Atkinson said. “Accepting things when they’re done differently. That’s hard, especially when you’ve had success like he’s had. He’s growing, and it helps that we’re playing better.”
One huge part of the Nets’ improved play is the 7-foot presence of Lopez on the perimeter, spreading the floor and knocking down three-pointers with 35.1 percent accuracy. After making three three-point field goals in his previous eight seasons, he has made at least three in a game 21 times this season.
“I had the confidence,” Lopez said. “I knew I could do it, and I’m not surprised. It’s one thing to say it, but I’m doing it. I just continued to put the work in, get the reps in, and the results are out there on the court.”
If the Nets’ new management regime was thinking of moving on from Lopez, his results this season must give them pause. Where else would they find someone like their soon-to-be all-time leading scorer?