Brook Lopez, his shots not falling, his movements seemingly slow, his starting spot taken by a younger player, seemed like he was on his last days as a Net. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, who was spotted sitting next to a Nets executive earlier in the week, later twice reported that Lopez seemed to the Net most likely to be shipped.
Then, he went off. In two games this week, he played 44 minutes, scored 40 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and shot 18-of-31, 58.1%. More importantly, he keyed the team's most impressive victory and looked like the All-Star he was before he got hurt last year. It was far and away his best game in more than a year.
Deron Williams, who sat next to Lopez on the bench, was the subject of very specific rumors: a trade with the Kings where he would go west in return for Darren Collison, Nik Staukas, Derrick Williams and Jason Thompson, that is, a glorified salary dump. Adrian Wojnarowski said the deal was thwarted by the Nets refusal to include Mason Plumlee, that the Kings wanted Plumlee, not D-Will.
Then, he calmly took Collison to school Tuesday, going right at him when he entered the Kings game, getting him in trouble and taking him out of the equation. Moreover, the four players believed to be headed east were underwhelming, with the possible exception of Stauskas, who at 21 may turn out to be a good player. It's unlikely any of them, including Collison, would start. On Wednesday, D-Will followed up that game with a solid defensive effort against the Bulls backcourt. His offense remains shaky, his jumper seemingly on vacation, but he did what he could and contributed to both wins.
Joe Johnson? Howard Beck has suggested he is the least likely of the Big Three to leave and he's playing well, too. On Tuesday, grabbing 11 rebounds to go with his 20 points. In his last five, he's averaged 18 points, five rebounds, four assists and is shooting 41% from three.
Most importantly, the Nets are on track, having won five of their last six and moving to within a half-game of sixth in the East and within one of a .500 record. Lionel Hollins has them playing well. Their 9-7 record in December is their best in nine years and a stark contrast to the last two years, when they went 5-11 and 5-9, ending both years on a sour note in San Antonio.
So do they make a trade, up the ante in trade talks, stop making calls or show some patience? The belief has always been that if the Nets weren't competitive at the deadline, about three blizzards away on February 19, the front office, pushed by ownership, would blow it up. A couple of weeks ago, that seemed like the likely scenario, but now, who knows?
The front office will tell you --and have-- that the Nets are simply doing their due diligence, gauging their players' value as GM's and assistant GM's do at this time of year. There will be no "fire sale," Billy King told the media, although that Kings deal now looks like a modified one. Privately, league sources told NetsDaily this week that the Nets have "a lot of teams and deals" they're looking at but added there's a "possibility" that they don't move any of the Big Three. "No one knows," said one source.
There are other factors of course, starting with money, whether it's to reduce payroll to give the franchise more flexibility under the CBA or to reduce the luxury tax bill, now at an estimated $24 million. It's no secret that Moscow is being hit every which way by the collapse of the Russian economy and the ruble. Those are discussions we're not likely to be privy to. Still, one league source says a lot of the proposed deals would add, not subtract, salary, short term if not long.
In a recent interview, Billy King questioned whether he had "orders" from Moscow to cut costs. He didn't deny it.
"Yeah, but I don't know if orders came down," King told Howard Megdal, talking his relationship with Mikhail Prokhorov and Dmitry Razumov, the Nets chairman. "Everything we do, we do as a group. We mapped it out. I think we looked at it, and made the decision this year to go in a different direction. So it wasn't--a message came down, 'Do this'. It was--we talk and discuss a lot of things."
Will they be discussing what to do know that the Nets are winning, looking good and moving up in the East. King admitted to Megdal that there might be some wiggle room because of where the team plays. "The East is, we're fortunate we are in the East. If we were in the West, we'd think a little differently."
So, bottom line, it will be a while, but not long, before we see whether the team simply raises the price on its best assets, based on their renewed level of play, or waits, just a bit, to see how it plays out. Could there be some movement on the margins? Sure, with four players on non-guaranteed deals that become guaranteed in 11 days and three trade exceptions, you might see some action. As for Big Three, we're betting King and his Russian bosses will be having discussions. What they decide to do is the issue.