The most significant injury of the young NBA season happened during last week's preseason action, when New Jersey Nets center Brook Lopez suffered a non-displaced stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. After Lopez underwent surgery, the team announced that Lopez would miss six to eight weeks.
While his absence will certainly be costly to the Nets' playoff hopes, it may not derail the team's long-term plans--and its chances to land Dwight Howard prior to this year's trade deadline.
The day Lopez was ruled out, New Jersey made a nice save by using its remaining cap space to acquire veteran Mehmet Okur from the Utah Jazz for the low price of a 2015 second-round pick. Okur is an experienced starter who is hoping to bounce back after a ruptured Achilles suffered during the 2010 playoffs ruined his 2010-11 campaign. If healthy, Okur will be a solid stopgap in the middle. At his best, however, the Turkish center was never the impact player Lopez has been.
The two players have different strengths. Before last season, Okur had grabbed at least 20 percent of available defensive rebounds three years running. Lopez only reached that mark--still below average for a center--during his rookie campaign. Last year, playing next to Kris Humphries, Lopez's defensive rebound rate slipped all the way to 12.3 percent, which would be weak for a small forward. Okur's rebounding will likely decline because Humphries leaves few rebounds for his teammates, but the Nets should be stronger on the defensive glass.
What New Jersey will miss most is Lopez's ability to score in the paint. Last season, he was the Nets' first option on offense, using 27.3 percent of the team's plays. (Deron Williams, after the trade, used 24.4 percent.) The highest usage rate of Okur's career was 23.5 percent, and he's generally used around 21 percent of his team's plays. Those extra shots will have to come from somewhere, and most of New Jersey's players besides Williams are stretched when creating their own shot.
That includes Okur, who has been assisted on around 70 percent of his made field goals historically, according to Hopdata.com. Lopez's rate of assisted shots has generally been lower, including just 56.8 percent during the 2009-10 season.
Okur's biggest shortcoming as Lopez's replacement might be his durability. At this point of his career, Okur might not be able to handle the 30-plus minutes he once regularly played. Lopez averaged 35.2 minutes a night last season, and the difference is critical because the Nets are thin behind their top two centers. Less minutes for the starter means more time on the floor for backups Johan Petro and Shelden Williams.
Factoring all of those issues, our SCHOENE projection system suggests New Jersey will lose about a win for every 15 games Lopez misses. If he's able to return within the most optimistic timetable (six weeks, which would put him back on Feb. 3), the difference might only mean a win for the Nets. But if Lopez's injury drags on, it could mean a four-win change in the team's final record if he isn't able to return at all.
This difference is meaningful because every win is crucial for a team that was already going to have a difficult time making the playoffs. Our final SCHOENE projections assumed Lopez would miss 40 games, which translates into a return in early March. Run through 10,000 simulations using the real schedule, that projection showed New Jersey reaching the postseason just 16.9 percent of the time.
The immediate, on-court impact of Lopez's injury is only a hint of the Pandora's box it opened considering what that damaged little bone means to the Nets' big picture, not to mention the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and other possible Howard suitors.
The conventional wisdom is that Lopez's injury takes New Jersey/Brooklyn out of the running for a possible Howard trade. Indeed, a center with glass bones in his feet seems more like a red flag than a trade asset. Names like Yao, Walton, Bynum, Bowie, Ilgauskas and Oden spring to mind--good players who all lost significant chunks of their careers to feet and ankle problems. Only time will tell, as they say, but it's worth noting that prior to this injury, Lopez had played in 246 straight games since entering the league. Perhaps this will prove to be the first of a string of unfortunate maladies for Lopez, or maybe it was just one blip of bad luck. Before now, his record of durability had been flawless.
It's up to Magic president of basketball operations and GM Otis Smith to evaluate the impact of Lopez's injury when considering the Nets as a landing place for Howard. The trade deadline is not for another 10 weeks. By the time March 15 rolls around, Lopez might be back on the court. Either way, Smith should have a pretty good idea of how well Lopez is healing before making a decision. Unless the news is of the worst-case variety, it seems kind of silly to suggest that Lopez's injury would prevent the Nets from making a trade.
In fact, there are a couple of reasons why a Howard trade to New Jersey may now be more likely. The Nets missing the playoffs will translate into a better draft pick next June. By all accounts, the 2012 draft class is loaded. Any trade for Howard would include that pick and likely several more in the years to come. Already, in this scenario, New Jersey's package has increased to Lopez and a potentially high lottery pick.
By dealing for Okur, who is in the final season of his contract, the Nets can also offer Orlando cap relief that would not have been available had New Jersey used its room to sign a free agent to a multiyear deal. Okur's $10.8 million salary can help balance the books on a possible Howard trade without forcing the Magic to make any long-term commitment. Trading for Okur's expiring deal gives Orlando a shot at being a player in free agency. The Magic would enter the summer of 2012 with at least $20 million in cap space. And unlike most small-market teams, Orlando has fared well historically when it comes to landing the big free-agent fish.
If you're a Brooklyn fan and hope your grandfather's dreams about Gil Hodges will be replaced by your own visions of Dwight Howard, take heart. Lopez's injury doesn't have to be the harbinger of the Nets' latest swing-and-miss when it comes to landing a franchise talent. In fact, it may turn out to be the necessary first step.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.