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NBA AM: Is Brook Lopez The Wrong Guy For The Nets?

Things are not going swimmingly in Brooklyn, could Brook Lopez be the wrong guy?… Spend your cap space now or save it for later?

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The Wrong Man For The Job?:  Brooklyn Nets big man Brook Lopez isn’t logging the best season of his career. In fact, he’s posting the second fewest points and is shooting 48.2 percent from the field, the lowest of his career.

After three strong seasons, Lopez was catapulted into “best big man in the game” discussion and was generally thought to be a star on the rise. Then injuries set in.

Lopez missed most of the 2011-12 season due to a cracked bone in his foot. He was able to play 74 games in the 2012-13 season and posted solid numbers, but missed all but 17 games last season to the same foot injury that cost him in 2011-12.

As the Nets try and find their way this season, Lopez is logging the second fewest minutes per game of his career. He recently found himself on the bench in the fourth quarter as Nets head coach Lionel Hollins looked for better lineups.

“It’s the usual from game to game,” Lopez said to Brian Lewis of the New York Post. “There’s different lineups in depending on who we play, so I think it is pretty standard at this point.”

Hollins, for his part, is still trying to figure things out with his big man, saying Lopez has to get better in a lot of aspects of the game, including trusting his teammates more.

“He can score,” Hollins said. “He needs to be better defensively, he needs to be better rebounding, he needs to be better passing the ball to his teammates.

“If you had been able to see practice today, you would’ve seen some really nice passes. It’s just being aware and trusting that your teammates are going to make plays, and understanding the game better.”

Lopez has the option to be a free agent in July, as the final year of his contract is a $16.7 million player option. That, combined with Hollins’ lack of faith in his big man late in games, has led many to wonder if Lopez could be traded this season before he has the option to walk away in July.

League sources say the Nets are exploring options on deals, but most of them involve disgruntled forward Andrei Kirilenko, and the idea of moving Lopez hasn’t been broached in a serious way, but it is the 800 pound elephant in the room.

Given the escalating salary cap and the large number of teams that are expected to have salary cap space in July, most believe Lopez will opt for free agency if he finishes the season strong. However, with how thing are going now and his injury history, he may not find a $16 million starting salary on the open market, but he may be able to trade the final $16.7 million left on his deal for a new $60 million package similar to what Washington’s Marcin Gortat signed this past summer.

The Nets are currently 5-8 on the season, but have lost seven of their last ten games. Lopez is still working his way back into form after so much time away from the game, so there is a chance things turn for the better not only for Brooklyn as a team, but for Lopez as well.

The problem with that kind of improvement is does it ensure that Lopez hits free agency? How will the Nets handle that?

The NBA trade deadline is February 19, so the Nets have plenty of time, but Lopez is clearly a player to keep an eye on.

»In Related: Who Are The Top NBA Draft Prospects For The 2015 NBA Draft?

Spend It Now, Or Spend It Later?:  A number of NBA teams will face an interesting problem this summer. Do they spend their cap money on what most believe is an average free agent class or do they stock pile the cap cash and wait for the free agent class of 2016 – which will likely feature Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and several other top-tier talents.

Projected 2015 Salary Cap Space

Franchise  Total Salary  Cap Room
 76ers  $24,573,570  $41,726,430
 Blazers  $36,867,556  $29,432,444
 Hawks  $43,725,161  $22,574,839
 Spurs  $43,836,362  $22,463,638
 Grizzlies  $44,543,338  $21,756,662
 Knicks  $46,483,289  $19,816,711
 Celtics  $46,666,312  $19,633,688
 Lakers  $47,002,668  $19,297,332
 Mavericks  $47,450,035  $18,849,965
 Raptors  $49,049,074  $17,250,926
 Pistons  $49,747,793  $16,552,207
 Magic  $52,494,216  $13,805,784
 Kings  $52,971,861  $13,328,139
 Pelicans  $56,233,596  $10,066,404
 Bucks  $58,018,984  $8,281,016
 Suns  $62,470,661  $3,829,339
 Rockets  $62,908,380  $3,391,620
 Jazz  $65,022,082  $1,277,918

Here are the current salary cap positions of every NBA team.

Based on the guaranteed contract dollars NBA teams are carrying now, there are as many as 18 teams that project to have some level of space under what is projected to be a $66.3 million salary cap next July. That number could go up slightly based on actual revenue from this season. NBA teams are updated on where the cap is expected to be and the last estimates pegged $66.3 million as the number. Those projections end up being fairly close when it’s all said and done.

While cap holds and option years will alter the exact amount each team will have to play with, there are several teams, potentially 11, that could have more than $15 million to spend.

So is it smarter to get what you can get now or wait for a bigger, splashier free agent class?

There are a few problems with waiting: There are absolutely no guarantees that any of the bigger name players will change teams and the salary cap in July of 2016 could go up massively because of the new media rights deal. Some are projecting a cap figure in the $80 million per team range. With things like maximum salary amounts tied to a percentage of the cap, major free agents could get massively more expensive in 2016 than this July.

A maximum contract for a player with less than six years in the NBA starts at 25 percent of the salary cap, while players with 6-9 years in the NBA are eligible for a starting salary worth 30 percent of the cap, with players with 10 or more years in the NBA eligible for a starting salary worth 35 percent of the cap.

Running those percentages against a $66.3 million estimated salary cap puts the first year of a max deal for players with six years or less in the NBA at $16.75 million. Players with 6-9 years in the NBA are eligible for first year of $19.89 million and players with 10 or more years in the NBA become eligible for a first year salary of $23.205 million.

Compare that to what is expected to be a potential $80 million cap figure in July of 2016 and those numbers escalate significantly.

Against an $80 million estimated salary cap, the first year of a max deal for players with six years or less in the NBA at $20 million. Players with 6-9 years in the NBA become eligible for first year of $24 million and players with 10 or more years in the NBA become eligible for a first year salary of $28 million.

So for teams pondering their free agency future, the talent pool for the 2015 free agent class might not have the same star power than the 2016 class has, but it will be significantly cheaper.

This isn’t a zero sum equation. Some of the teams with ample space could opt to buy a little from 2015, while keeping options open for 2016, so it isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.

There are no guarantees in free agency in the NBA, but some teams will have a chance this summer to make some noise, if they choose to.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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