Brook Lopez still here, still going strong

The Brooklyn Nets have been trying to trade Brook Lopez for years.

They just can’t seem to get rid of their best player.

This season alone -- ever since the Nets first made him available in mid-December -- they talked with Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Miami and Denver about Lopez. And those are just the teams that we know of.

About an hour before the Feb. 19 trade deadline, the Nets thought they had a deal in place that would send Lopez to the Thunder in exchange for Reggie Jackson -- who they were going to max out.

But Thunder GM Sam Presti found a better alternative, acquiring the much cheaper Enes Kanter and flipping Jackson to Detroit.

The deadline expired. Lopez remained a Net. Brooklyn brass was upset. They thought they had a deal. Then they didn’t have a deal.


The 27-year-old center has overcome it all.

Yes, after all of that -- including the MeloDrama, plus the Dwightmare -- Brook Lopez is still plugging away, playing the best basketball of his career and single-handedly keeping the only franchise he’s ever played for -- the only franchise he’s ever wanted to play for, the same franchise that has been trying to trade him for years -- right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

On Wednesday night in Charlotte, Lopez posted 34 points (22 in the second half), 10 rebounds, three blocks and one game-clinching deflection, enabling his team to come away with a 91-88 victory over the Hornets. That win, coupled with a loss by Boston, moved Brooklyn (31-40) within a half-game of the Celtics for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. It also gave the Nets the all-important tiebreaker over the Hornets by virtue of their 2-1 edge in the season series.

Over his past four games, Lopez is averaging an insane 30.8 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks in 36.8 minutes while shooting 65.8 percent from the field.

As expected, after undergoing offseason foot and ankle surgeries, Lopez got off to an extremely slow start. He wasn’t himself. He clashed with new coach Lionel Hollins. In early December, he suffered a lower back strain that cost him eight games. When he returned, Hollins decided to bring him off the bench. But recently, Lopez has looked like an All-Star again, thriving next to Thaddeus Young in the starting lineup. He is scoring and rebounding at an extremely high rate -- boxing out his man and making that signature 8- to 12-foot push shot he has become known for with relative ease.

These days, the player the Nets were desperately trying to get rid of seems like the only player they can trust to consistently make impact plays on offense. Unfortunately, Young suffered a hyperextended left knee injury on Wednesday night and had to leave the game. X-rays were negative, although Young told reporters he will likely have to undergo an MRI on Thursday.

So, with 12 games remaining in the 2014-15 campaign, Brooklyn’s playoff fate will probably be determined by Brook.

Lopez is in the third year of a four-year, $61 million max contract he signed with the Nets in the summer of 2012. He holds a fourth-year player option for $16.7 million.

It has widely been assumed that Lopez would opt in, though maybe, given his injury history, he’d want to get a multiyear deal on the open market -- something like four years, $40 million. That way he’d have some security in case he got hurt again.

But given the way he’s playing, looking quite healthy and quite productive, Lopez might be wise to take the $16.7 million and then try to get paid handsomely in 2016-17, when the NBA’s salary cap is expected to increase to $90 million as a result of the national TV deal.

The Nets already have the following commitments for 2015-16: Joe Johnson ($24.9 million); Deron Williams ($21 million); Jarrett Jack ($6.3 million); Bojan Bogdanovic ($3.4 million); Sergey Karasev ($1.6 million team option); Mason Plumlee ($1.4 million team option); Alan Anderson ($1.3 million player option); Markel Brown ($845,000 partial guarantee) and Cory Jefferson ($845,000 partial guarantee). That’s nearly $60.3 million for nine players. Add in Lopez and Young ($10 million player option) and you’re looking at $87 million for 11 players. And that doesn’t include a possible qualifying offer to impending restricted free agent Mirza Teletovic ($3.4 million this season), who is recovering after having blood clots in his lungs. Nor does it include Atlanta’s 2015 first-round pick or any smaller-salaried players Brooklyn may want to add via free agency, compliant with CBA rules.

Yes, the Nets find themselves in yet another bind -- facing a payroll of over $90 million that could result in an unsightly projected repeater tax fee of $40 million. A team like Brooklyn that doesn’t feel it can contend for a championship isn’t going to want to pay that much money for its roster. But it’s going to be extremely difficult for the Nets to move the massive salaries of Johnson or Williams. Maybe Nets GM Billy King, assuming he is still around, will be able to pull off a miracle. It only takes one team, after all.

Either way, Lopez finds himself in a really nice position with some really nice options. He can stay and try to get paid down the road or he can leave and get paid now.

It’s hard not to feel good for a guy who has been extremely loyal -- almost to a fault. Oh well. As long as he stays healthy, Brook Lopez is on the verge of cashing in one way or another.

In the meantime, he’ll try to help the franchise that has wanted to trade him in the worst way get into the playoffs.

Funny the way things work out sometimes.