HOUSTON – Brook Lopez took his rightful spot on the glittering stage Sunday tonight and was introduced as a first-time member of the Eastern Conference All-Stars, and the lone representative of the Brooklyn Nets.
The face (and supposed savior) of the franchise, point guard Deron Williams, had his three-year All-Star run snapped by a substandard half-season.
That Lopez and not Williams was in Houston serves as a timely reminder that while D-Will might be the club’s star name, Lopez has been its most valuable player. He’s been the key to the Nets being 31-22 heading into the season’s stretch run. Brooklyn is 17-8 since coach Avery Johnson was fired days after Williams criticized the former coach’s offense as reason for his shooting struggles.
“I’m just trying to help our team in any way possible,” Lopez said. “I think our team has been pretty successful, but we’ve been a little inconsistent. But when we’re at our best, I think we’re capable of competing with anyone. I think our goal for the second half is just to become more consistent throughout the rest of the season and in each specific game.”
The Nets’ big man — whom the franchise dangled for so long in pursuit of a trade for unhappy Dwight Howard — initially didn’t garner enough votes from the East’s coaches to be one of the squad’s seven reserves. Omitted despite averaging 19.0 ppg — tops among the league’s centers, including Howard — on 52 percent shooting. Despite picking up his rebounding, especially on the offensive glass. Despite, on average, blocking more than two shots a game, ranking sixth-best among forwards and centers.
And any advanced metrics guru will tell you that no player boasting Lopez’s superb player efficiency rating of 24.8 — the league average is 15.0 — gets left off an All-Star team. Yet, it took Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo suffering a season-ending ACL injury for the 7-foot Lopez to get the commissioner’s blessing to join the East’s crowded 6-foot-11-and-over club with starters Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh, and reserves Joakim Noah and Tyson Chandler.
Vindication for a monster season post-Dwightmare, right?
“No,” said Lopez, who was the last of the East reserves to make an appearance in the second quarter and made the most of his 11 total minutes (three points, five rebounds, three assists). “I wanted to come out and play my best basketball possible. That’s how I approach every game. I ignored all the trade talks, everything in the offseason. I don’t read much in the papers or ESPN.com or anything like that. I was just focused on bettering myself as a player and putting myself in the best situation possible for whatever happens.”
And so what about D-Will? The hits kept coming this weekend with USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo saying that Williams ”was not in the best shape” and “a little overweight” during the Summer Games in London. Williams has struggled with various injuries this season, although he’s missed just three games, while his production across the board has declined to levels of his first two seasons in the league.
“He’s getting a good rest right now,” Lopez said. “I think he’s confident. Our team is doing well right now. He’s the face of the franchise, our leader, he drastically affects what we do. We’re doing well right now and that’s mostly because of him.”
Lopez is clearly a Stanford man — smart and savvy.
He said he’s optimistic that Williams will play better in the final 29 games. That can only be encouraging for a team that has endured early turmoil and high expectations, yet is just 2 1/2 games behind the New York Knicks for the East’s second seed.
The Nets play at home Tuesday against Milwaukee, then at Milwaukee on Wednesday. Three of their next four are at Barclays Center, but it would be easy against West playoff teams Houston and Memphis.
“Like I said, when we’re at our best I think we’re capable of competing with anyone,” Lopez said. “It’s just a matter of being consistent.”