Nets open wallet to lock up Lopez, but Howard rumors will rise again

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And oh, what a spree. Over the last two weeks the Nets have locked up Lopez, Deron Williams (five years, $98 million), Gerald Wallace (four years, $40 million) and Kris Humphries (two years, $24 million) with new deals while trading for the final four years and $89 million of Joe Johnson's contract. While Knicks owner James Dolan was contemplating the luxury tax hit a $14.8 million annual salary for Jeremy Lin would create in 2015, Nets owner Mikhael Prokhorov was handing GM Billy King a blank check and telling him to just fill in the zeros.

Salary cap? Please. Luxury tax? Just tell us how much. Small-market owners feared that deep-pocketed, big-market owners like Prokhorov would scoff at the new rules and low and behold, he has.

The Nets' free spending has beefed up their roster, morphing a team in recent years that had win totals that looked like locker combinations into one of the most formidable squads in the Eastern Conference. Williams is an All-NBA point guard just entering the prime of his career. Johnson was miscast as a No. 1 option in Atlanta, but still ranks as one of the NBA's most dynamic scoring guards, replete with a diverse inside-out game. Wallace is an athletic, two-way player who excels in transition. Humphries may not score as much with this group but is a bullish rebounder who has finished in the top-five in rebounds per game the last two seasons. Lopez is one year removed from averaging 20 points per game.

Yes, the Nets are now good, and if you believe head coach Avery Johnson, they are content with how good they are. When Lopez was asked if he had any assurances from the Brooklyn brass that he would be with the team at the end of the season, or if Dwight Howard is still in Orlando in mid-January -- when Lopez is eligible to be traded -- he expects to hear his name once again tossed in trade talks, Johnson intercepted the question like a parent protecting his child.

"When a free agent signs a contract, the possibility of being traded in January never comes up," Johnson said. "What we talk about when we re-signed him is 'Let's get back to work. We're excited about where we are going, here are your strengths and weaknesses, here is how you are being used, here is how you can help our team.' Those are they type of discussions we have."

Johnson was shielding his player, but make no mistake, the Nets are still open for business. They guaranteed all four years of Lopez's contract because had they been forced to match an offer sheet with Charlotte or Portland, Lopez would have had the right to veto any deal in the first year. And Lopez -- who says he was "not sure" if he would have been willing to be part of a sign-and-trade with Orlando -- doesn't sound like a player looking to move.

"I want to be a Net my entire career," Lopez said.

The Nets have options now and come January, if Howard is still on the Magic's roster, the circus will come back to town. In so many ways a Howard deal will hinge on Lopez, on if he continues the upward arc he appeared just a year ago. A foot injury robbed Lopez of all of five games last season but in 2010-2011 he was one of the league's most promising centers, a gifted offensive talent. He says he is close to 100 percent now, and a strong start to the season will increase his value as a trade chip.

Lopez says he has not been distracted by trade rumors up to this point -- "I don't read a lot of the stuff you guys write," Lopez said. "I read a lot of comic books and they don't mention Dwight Howard too much" -- and the Nets will do everything they can to make him feel wanted. If Howard is moved to Los Angeles, Dallas or Houston the Nets are going to need Lopez, need him to be the player he was a season ago. It's a new era in Brooklyn, and all Lopez wants is to be a part of it.