Splash Mountain came whirling into Milwaukee Bucks’ fans lives like a geyser of refreshingly cool water after a decade blisteringly lukewarm centers. After years of wandering through the forest of mediocre big men, Milwaukee finally snagged Brook Lopez for the bi-annual exception in 2018. The lumbering Lopez brother cut his teeth in the Nets organization for years as a low-post brute before getting shipped to the Los Angeles Lakers in the D’Angelo Russell trade. When Lebron James and the Lakers opted not to retain Lopez’s services, Jon Horst soundly swooped in to pair the growing 3-point gunner with Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It paid off in spades for Horst and company last year, as Lopez morphed into the ideal center for both ends of Mike Budenholzer’s offensive and defensive philosophies. Lopez turned into a competent chucker from deep, and his sheer volume of 3-point shots for a man his size remains staggering. His 512 3-point attempts topped the team, besting Khris MIddleton’s 474 and Eric Bledsoe’s 377. Even among all centers in the league, Lopez far and away attempted the most, with Karl-Anthony Towns in second at 355 and Marc Gasol in third at 273.
At 36.5% conversion rate, a career best, teams respected the heck out of Lopez’s ability beyond the arc, opening up driving lanes for Giannis to pummel his way into the paint. Lopez hit more triples than any center in NBA history. It was a herculean feat, fulfilling his metamorphosis from a paint operator to a floor-stretcher. With a plus 6.2 net-rating differential, including an 11.5 net rating while on court, Lopez was instrumental to Milwaukee’s success last season. With him on the court, he also ranked second (discounting Nikola Mirotic) in terms of the team’s offensive rating.
For all those accolades on that side of the court though, his more valuable contribution (in my humble opinion) came on the defensive end. He didn’t arrive in Milwaukee with a reputation as a defensive stopper, yet Bud’s zone-drop scheme was perfectly suited to his cerebral, less mobile defensive game. Almost immediately, Lopez’s rim protection numbers were gaudy. As a team, the Bucks allowed just 57.5% shooting at the rim in 2018-19, tops in the league, but Lopez himself allowed just 52.5%, ranking third among all players who faced five or more field goal attempts at the rim.
Just as important was how Lopez deterred players from even attempting those typically efficient shots in the first place. The Bucks ranked tops in terms of attempts allowed at the rim, just 30.3% of opponent attempts. Lopez became a master at dropping during the pick-and-roll, but still showing just enough by getting his massive paw in the ball handler’s face as they determine whether they want to probe the paint any further or settle for a midrange or less efficient runner. His body control on most of those plays was impeccable, as he could corral opponents long enough that the Bucks’ defender could recover with one of the Bud’s patented “rearview pursuits” after the pick.
Even as a switching big, most wouldn’t peg that as a skill in Lopez’s repertoire, but he showed impressive foot skills when Milwaukee altered their defensive scheme a tad in the Playoffs last year. On top of all that, the Lopez Effect (improved team rebounding rates due to Lopez’s box-out skills) finally brought Milwaukee out of the dark ages in terms of defensive rebounding rate. Here’s where the franchise ranked in terms of defensive rebounding rate since 2010, per Cleaning The Glass.
Bucks Def. Rebounding Rate League Ranking
It was Lopez’s defensive prowess that went underrated last year in the midst of his 3-point bombing display night after night. With his shot more iffy this year, that defensive acumen has rose to prominence. But, the proof of concept upon his arrival in 2018-19 was more than enough to warrant the current 4-year, $52M deal (where he may still be underpaid...at least this year).
From the archives
And so we all know what that means...Giannis Antetokounmpo, critically underpaid at just $25M per year, takes the place as the best Bucks contract of the last decade. His deal (nearly the exact same extension that Rudy Gobert signed), was somewhat controversial as it clearly avoided the fifth year Milwaukee could have allocated to him had they offered him their “Designated Player” slot. Instead, they were likely holding that in place for Jabari, allowing them to sign Giannis at a song. It’s paid massive dividends for the team up to this point, and thank goodness the franchise saw the error of its trajectory under Jason Kidd finally. They brought in a talent upgrade at coach and roster to maximize their teambuilding ability while Giannis is still grossly underpaid.
That will all change in two years, when Giannis’s potential SuperMax kicks in, either in Milwaukee or elsewhere. We all know what we want the outcome to be, but we’ll have to wait until October to know whether chants of “Five more years,” will be raining across Fourth Street, or a season of simmering anxiety about the Summer to come awaits.