The New Jersey Nets' pursuit of Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard became more complicated Thursday when they learned center Brook Lopez, the 23-year-old center around whom they've based trade offers for Orlando's superstar, suffered a broken bone in his foot and will be out until at least February. In response to Lopez's injury, the team traded for Utah Jazz center Mehmet Okur, absorbing the Turkey native into its cap space and sending Utah a heavily protected second-round draft pick in return.
The Nets are among four teams with which Howard has said he'll continue his career, with the others being Orlando, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Dallas Mavericks. As he'll be a free agent in the summer of 2012, Howard has some leverage in any trade situation, as he can scare potential trade partners off by declaring he would not re-sign with that team in free agency.
Even if Lopez can return to the floor by February--an optimistic projection according to Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated, who believes the Stanford product could miss the entire regular season--Orlando might be disinclined to trade for him, given that he'd be a seven-footer with a history of foot injuries. Though Lopez has been remarkably durable throughout his three-year NBA career, as he has yet to miss a game, foot injuries among big men raise red flags.
Further, New Jersey lost its remaining salary-cap space by acquiring Okur in the wake of Lopez's injury. A previous perk of potentially trading Howard to New Jersey was its ability to use its cap space to absorb Hedo Turkoglu's contract in the transaction. The Nets have now lost that ability.
Given that the Mavericks have precious little to offer in terms of trade assets, with scoring machine Rodrigue Beaubois being their only young player of note, the Lakers may have emerged as the favorites to land Howard if Orlando decides to trade him prior to the March 15 deadline. The Lakers can offer 24-year-old center Andrew Bynum and 10-year veteran big man Pau Gasol, but Lopez's injury gives them some leverage. Knowing that none of Howard's other destinations can offer a truly attractive trade package, L.A. can reduce its offer to include either Gasol or Bynum.
Lopez has averaged 17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks in his career, while Bynum's averages stand at 10.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks. Orlando is unlikely to land a better young talent than Lopez or Bynum in a trade for Howard.