At first glance, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the linchpin to the Bucks’ defense, which is just decimal points away from having the top defensive rating in the NBA (it sits at a 103.7 heading after Wednesday night’s win over the Memphis Grizzlies). He’s the generational talent who can quite literally defend all five positions and do so successfully. Both his steal (1.7 percent) and block percentages (2.2 percent) are above average for his position as well. He’s a dark horse candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. But despite all of the hype, head coach Mike Budenholzer has actually designed his defense around Brook Lopez.
Lopez is the center of attention because of what he can’t do AND because of what he can. The seven-footer has cement blocks for feet and would get blown by on the regular if he tried to defend at the three-point line. Budenholzer knows this. Lopez knows this. Heck, the whole NBA knows this.
His complete lack of lateral quickness appears to be the motivation for why the Bucks employ a deep drop on pick-and-rolls. The deep drop means Lopez literally backpedals into the lane on a ball screen and prevents the ball-handler from getting a shot around the rim:
Against some pull-up specialist such as Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker or Kyrie Irving, the strategy can be dangerous. The Bucks give up the most three-point attempts in the league at 35.7 per game. A lot of those come in one of two ways and both involve the ball screen; pull-ups or hitting the popping big man.
Regardless of the weaknesses of the defensive scheme, Budenholzer has stuck with it. Because it works.
Lopez’ strengths as a defender far outweigh his weaknesses. He’s extremely smart, he’s disciplined, he’s a big body, and he’s very long. This combination makes it extremely difficult for teams to score in the area that’s supposed to be the easiest: at or around the rim.
Thanks in large part to Lopez, the Bucks sport the lowest opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area at 56.3 percent.
Following the ball screen by Thomas Bryant, Lopez is temporarily charged with both stopping the ball and the roller. By getting deep into the lane, he’s able to slow down the ball-handler and buy himself as much time until the on-ball defender, Malcolm Brogdon in this case, can get back into the play. However, Tomas Satoransky pushes the pace and tries to get a bucket before that can happen. He dumps off a one-handed bounce pass to Bryant who’s casually sent away from the rim when he tries to score over Lopez.
Lopez is swatting opponent shots with a lot more frequency this season. His 3.5 percent block percentage ranks in the 91st percentile, and is his highest since the 2012-13 season according to Cleaning the Glass. This menacing presence down low has outright deterred opponents from even wanting to shoot around the rim. The Bucks are giving up the fewest attempts (24) in the restricted area per game.
Jarrett Allen, who is in the extremely rare group of players who can say they’ve blocked LeBron James, Antetokounmpo and Blake Griffin, gets his shot annihilated at the rim here:
The clip begins with Allen kicking the ball out to Spencer Dinwiddie above the three-point line. Allen then follows his pass and sets a ball screen. Meanwhile, Lopez is already stuck deep inside the paint and only backpedals from there. Dinwiddie gets Lopez to momentarily leave his feet and drops a nifty pass to Allen who appears to have a wide open dunk:
Fortunately, Lopez sheds those cement blocks, quickly gets off the ground again and contorts his body like he’s doing a yoga move in order to avoid Allen’s body while ping-ponging his shot off the backboard.
One of the main principles of Budenholzer’s defense in Milwaukee is to prevent shots around the rim. They wouldn’t be nearly this successful without Splash Mountain defending the paint at such a high level. And Lopez does that better than anyone.
He allows 0.681 points per possession on shots “around the basket” that don’t include post-ups according to Synergy. That is the best mark for any center in the league and better than any player not named Jamal Crawford (anomaly!) who has seen the floor in at least 30 games this season.
Budenholzer deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done with Lopez and this defense. If we rewind to last Summer, the Bucks had just finished a season where they posted the 19th best defensive rating and Lopez was sitting on the free agent market because of the concerns around his ability to play “modern” defense at the NBA level.
Instead of fretting over what the seven-footer couldn’t do, the Bucks designed their defense around what he could. Heck, they even concocted a specialized game plan for James Harden based solely on Lopez’ great defensive ability. And, for the most part, it worked.
No matter what the Bucks and Lopez do during the regular season, they’ll continue to have a dark storm cloud hovering over their head until they reach the playoffs. The intensity and skill level amp up in April, May and June. The theory is Milwaukee couldn’t possibly survive and thrive with their defense designed as is.
Others aren’t so sure. That same thinking is what led to the Bucks getting Lopez on a bargain deal late in free agency to begin with. Budenholzer likely plans for the playoffs. Plans that have Lopez front and center of one of the league’s best defenses. After all, Milwaukee’s success on that end of the court isn’t centered around his deficits, rather his advantages.