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Brook Lopez - Returning to his Roots

Before Brook Lopez was a three-point bomber, he was an all-league interior scorer. Why Milwaukee may want him back in the paint...

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

It sure does get the “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs”, doesn’t it?

Before the dual arrival of Brook Lopez and Mike Budenzholer in the summer of 2018, the closest thing Bucks fans saw to a true center spotting up from three was...Spencer Hawes? Thon? Larry Sanders with no time on the shot clock and an ejection around the corner?

Truth be told, nobody in franchise history has ever combined the size and shooting ability seen in Brook Lopez. Where other centers would occasionally take a three, the shot makes up an integral part to Lopez’s offensive repertoire. Look no further than his 3PAr of .651 last season and .572 so far this season for evidence that Brook is unlike any player to don the uniform.

That unicorn-y aspect of his game has fed directly into the stunning success Milwaukee has experienced in Budenholzer’s genuine five-out offensive system. Where most teams are saddled with a big man (or two) who struggle from outside, the Bucks actively force the ball into the seven-footer’s hands to punish opponents. In turn, the floor opens for force of nature Giannis Antetokounmpo to hack, smash, and manipulate whatever poor souls are left in no-man’s land between him and the rim.

The proof of how well this works is in the statistical pudding: When Lopez is on the court the team’s offensive rating spikes to 113.7, highest for any individual on the roster and 1.6 ticks above the team’s average. Isolate that down to two-man lineups featuring Brook and Giannis and that ORtg edges even higher to 114.5 in 359 shared minutes this season.

So, what’s the issue? Why write this article at all?

Brook Lopez ain’t no chump, that’s why.

Crucial as his existence is to turning Milwaukee into a juggernaut, fun as it is for all of us to scream “SPLASH MOUNTAIN” in all caps on various internet mediums, and mind-numbingly demoralizing it must be for opponents when even that fricken guy is battering them over the head from outside, Lopez is capable of far more than a single offensive note.

First, the shooting charts:

2018-2019 (first season as a Buck — note that shot charts aren’t readily available in this format for 2019-20)

2016-2017 (first season really turning into a shooter)

2015-2016 (prime interior force Brook Lopez)

So, visually there is no denying that even as his average distance from the basket has progressively become more extreme, Lopez remains a highly efficient interior scorer. Perhaps, it could be argued, the numbers would show he’s getting more bang for his buck when he does decide to go inside.

How then, as a Buck, has he gone about getting these types of shots?

Between 2018 and today, his shot selection has roughly broken down as follows from most common shot type to least: Spot up, transition attempts, P&R, cutting, and posting up (mixing in a couple of other looks labeled under ‘Misc.’).

Brook Lopez Shot Type

Shot Type Freq. 2019-20 PPP 2019-20 Percentile Freq. 2018-19 PPP 2018-2019 Percentile
Shot Type Freq. 2019-20 PPP 2019-20 Percentile Freq. 2018-19 PPP 2018-2019 Percentile
Spot Up 31.60% 0.92 39.7 39.10% 1.11 79.8
Transition 15.80% 1.07 49.1 14.30% 1.26 78.3
P&R 14.00% 1.12 48.6 14.10% 1.25 80.6
Cut 9.50% 1.39 61.9 4.20% 1.44 80.9
Post Up 8.90% 1.18 89.7 8.40% 1.04 77

What is it that jumps out here? First, how much of an absolute all-around nightmare he was for defenses from nearly every shot type last year, but also that he’s improved how good he is inside on a PPP basis when posting up versus a season ago. In fact, going back to 2015-2016 (the first season where this data is available) Brook is experiencing his best season as a post-up option. That conversion rate comes thanks to the fact that he doesn’t do it nearly as frequently as he once did, but also points to a tool that continues to be available instead of fading.

Secondly, in Milwaukee’s system he’s shown himself adept at making defenses pay for losing sight of him on the outside. We’ve seen him elect on occasion to lumber from the top of the key to the basket, but even I was impressed with just how much production he gets out of that shot type. Even his pick and roll ability isn’t half bad, though the lack of many truly deadly P&R ballhandlers hurts him here.

Overall, we know the guy can shoot, but when you dig beneath the surface it becomes clear that the weapon of yesteryear still resides within Lopez. Inside, outside, posting up, on the move, whatever you need he can do at a more than acceptable clip when called upon.

Not convinced? Here’s a couple more theories for why doing a bit more poking around with Brook in the paint might benefit Milwaukee more than at first glance:

1) Give Giannis a break

I love to see it, you love to see it, everyone around the globe loves to see it when the threes aren’t falling for Milwaukee and Giannis has to battering ram himself to death against three defenders in the paint. While Antetokounmpo has been on a monstrous tear through the early part of the season (even as his MPG load sits at just 32.9) there will be consequences for the amount of damage that adds up in 70ish games plus the playoffs.

While moving Brook inside the three-point line is anathema to the theory of Milwaukee’s offense, the value derived from granting Giannis the occasional breather should offset such concerns. Not only will Giannis get a rest, but it allows Brook to take advantage of defenses that will inevitably still be switched onto Antetokounmpo. Even if he’s just standing around, opponents can’t help but glance his way in response to the all-consuming fear that any moment could see Giannis decapitating Aron Baynes.

Brook attacking the paint takes advantage of this slight reduction in defensive pressure and keeps things moving at a decent scoring clip. Nobody can match Giannis’s 83+% mark from within three feet of the basket, but a career 66% scorer in that same zone might be enough to clear the gap.

2) Punish teams for going small

Like almost everything in the NBA, this aspect is largely matchup-dependent. Ask yourself this: How many truly elite teams, especially in the East, outside of Milwaukee regularly sport your traditional center on defense? Goga Bitazde has been good for Indiana, Rudy Gobert for Utah, Anthony Davis with the Lakers, Ivica Zubac and the Clippers, not to mention a few other outliers, but generally teams have been getting smaller and more agile rather than featuring hulking anchors.

Think back on opening night against the Rockets as the #1 example of recognizing an entire floor mismatch that favors Brook. With Giannis fouling out it seemed like a loss was virtually guaranteed. Then Mike Budenholzer went to Brook Lopez over PJ Tucker. Then he did it again. He did it again after that. All told, Brook contributed 9 points in less than four minutes and forced the Rockets onto the back foot enough to get the 117-111 win.

Further, with teams defending quite well within six feet of the basket and Milwaukee’s success predicated upon a rigid inside-outside bevy of shots it may be necessary to use Brook as another battering ram alongside Giannis and the more deft Eric Bledsoe or Donte DiVincenzo to keep things moving.

3) Break up the monotony of a 4/25 shooting stretch from three

Out of a possible 34 halves of basketball so far this season, we’ve seen the Bucks shoot below league-average from three (.356 as of this writing) in exactly 50% of those halves. Reduce the shooting benchmark to 30% and worse and that number of poor shooting 24 minute chunks decreases just a hair to 14.

For arithmetic's sake, that’s 41.2% of all minutes played where the Bucks have been something of a really sub-par perimeter shooting team. That remaining 58.8% of play time sees the Bucks as something ranging from OK to excellent, but groans about the whiplashing of this year’s offense have been legion.

What better way to apply a bit of heat to an ice cold streak than by spending the occasional possession giving the offense a different look? This isn’t to suggest moving away from open threes when you get them — in fact, 41.2% of Milwaukee’s three attempts have come with shooters considered “open” or “wide open” — but in exploiting the situation on a case-by-case basis. At the very least it presents an opportunity to shake any lingering doubts in the minds of the team’s shooting corps about whether yet another three is really maximizing a possession after the whole squad had missed 14 of them on the previous 14 times down the floor.

4) Use it or lose it

Here comes the argument with the weakest connection to measurable reality. “Why include this usually vulgar phrase when discussing basketball?” you may ask. It’s here because there lies a grain of truth behind the spirit of the sentence.

While it’s unlikely Brook will suddenly completely forget how to play well in the paint, one does wonder how long he can keep at operating on the perimeter before there begins to be some degrading in his comfort in the post. His transformation into a sharpshooter is still relatively recent, but every day that passes is another that sees “Let it fly” entrench itself deeper in his mind.

Not to mention the level of comfort teammates would have operating around a more lumbering big man down low. It’s one thing to have an inkling where to go and where to expect Brook to be when five-out is the way of life. Would a game-to-game adjustment in style that sees Brook going closer to the basket be smooth sailing for everyone else after 82+ nights of the opposite strategy?

This doesn’t have to be a counterrevolution. In fact, it could be argued that a minor return to type for Brook Lopez would be a sign of growth and maturation for the Bucks in Mike Budenholzer’s second year in charge. The seductive allure of decimating team after team all year long running the same basic principles over and over and over again is nigh impossible to overcome. For the sake of this team’s playoff chances it might prove wise of Bud to pick his spots over the course of 4,000 some odd meaningful minutes to try a little experimentation.

Who knows? Maybe we’ll find out that the cure to Milwaukee’s no-ideas-what-the-hell-to-do offensive woes from time to time against a tuned-in defense has been right here on the roster all along.