Brook Lopez fractured the fifth metatarsal in his foot, the same injury that kept Roddy Beaubois out for six months. (Cal Sport Media)
Brook Lopez is a very good player, but the NBA turns on franchise-level superstars, and so news that Lopez has a stress fracture in his right foot is extra-important because of what it might mean for Dwight Howard and Deron Williams. Lopez has broken his fifth metatarsal, according to the Nets, and early reports suggest Lopez could return in four to six weeks. The Nets are optimistic Lopez could return sometime in early February, before the March 15 trade deadline, according to Yahoo! Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.
That sounds quite optimistic. The Mavericks’ Roddy Beaubois suffered the same injury in August of 2010, and he wasn’t back on the floor in an NBA game for six months — and he’s a guard, not a 7-footer. F.D. Kharrazi, a surgeon at the prestigious Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles and a consultant for the Lakers, estimates the total time for recovery and rehab from Lopez’s injury at somewhere between three and four months. The latter figure would cost Lopez the entire season. Other studies of the fifth metatarsal injuries have indicated a stress fracture is perhaps the most serious sort of fracture one can suffer there.
The Nets aren’t going anywhere this season, so the first natural reaction is to ask what this means for New Jersey’s pursuit of Howard. A package centered around Lopez, first-round picks and assets drawn from a third team is one of the few that makes realistic sense for Orlando, even if said package will not approach Howard’s solo value. Trading a superstar isn’t easy, and you never get one in return. Lopez’s injury and iffy timetable for recovery make this process even trickier for the Nets. On the one hand, Lopez has never missed a game before this, and he is pretty much a known commodity at this point. Even if he’s injured at the trade deadline, why wouldn’t the Magic, knowing Howard is going to bolt in free agency, acquire Lopez, retain his rights as a restricted free agent and move on? It’s not as if they have much leverage, with Howard having already requested a trade (to the Nets, Lakers or Mavs) and so many of the league’s teams clearing cap room for this summer.
On the flip side, I don’t have to tell you about the history of big guys and foot issues. It’s far too simplistic to equate Lopez with prior big men who have suffered chronic foot problems; every individual body is different, and Lopez has no prior injury history at the NBA level. And most players — Beaubois, Pau Gasol in 2006, others — seem to have recovered fully from this specific injury, with no lasting effects or related injuries linked to overcompensating elsewhere. But you wouldn’t blame the Magic for feeling gun-shy on Lopez now. You certainly wouldn’t blame them if they asked for more assets in any theoretical Lopez-centric Howard deal, or for re-engaging other teams whose trade packages (Andrew Bynum?) suddenly look a little better.
As for the Nets, the loss of Lopez, an efficient interior scorer who should thrive with Williams, knocks them down from “potential to push for .500 if they sign Andrei Kirilenko” to “super-depressing lottery team who will spend the entire season worrying about losing Williams in free agency.” It’s hard to imagine a worse offseason, at least so far. The Nets reportedly chased Nene and Tyson Chandler in free agency, hoping to simultaneously please Williams by upgrading the current roster and land another potential Howard trade chip. They have instead used their cap room on Kris Humphries, Shelden Williams, DeShawn Stevenson and Shawne Williams, all while paying Travis Outlaw $16 million to go away via the one-time-only amnesty provision. Now Lopez is hurt. Their starting center today is Johan Petro, an offensive non-entity who struggles with positioning on defense and fouls more often, per minute, than almost anyone in the league. On opening night, the Nets may well start Williams-Humphries-Petro-Anthony Morrow-Damion James, and I’m sorry, but that’s not really an NBA-quality starting lineup.
The good news, if there is any, is that New Jersey still has about $9.5 million in cap room through which it could either sign Kirilenko or strike a lopsided trade (in salary terms) for a legit center. John Schuhmann of NBA.com has already suggested a theoretical Jordan Farmar/Chris Kaman swap, which works under the cap and would probably also involve the Nets sending a pick to the Hornets. Of course, the Nets are hoarding those picks in pursuit of Howard, and using cap space on a big such as Kaman would knock them out of the running for Kirilenko. Such are the ripple effects of something like this.
We’ll see how those ripple effects play out over the next few months. It’s going to be easy to mock the Nets and presume them out of the Howard derby, but we first have to see how Lopez recovers, what the Magic think of him as a player and whether any other teams emerge as realistic suitors.