The much ballyhooed transition Brook Lopez underwent his latter years in Brooklyn are well-chronicled at this point. Once a brute, now a bomber. His shift to the arc assuredly lengthened his career and led to his ascension as one of Milwaukee’s key figures that helps its star forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo, rule the paint. But in that move, Lopez’s most marketable skill has all but gone by the wayside since he arrived in Mike Budenholzer’s five-out scheme. However, after last year’s team’s unceremonious boot in the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s been chatter about bringing back Lopez’s post game as an effective counterpunch to diversify Milwaukee’s offensive offerings.
Riley wrote an elaborate and thorough breakdown about the potential positives of this move back in November. Before we offer retrospectives on some of the benefits Riley laid out for this strategy, let’s give a baseline for how Lopez performed throughout the year from inside.
From a raw shooting perspective, he’s actually having his worst year at the rim since 2016-17, even on much lower volume. Per Cleaning The Glass, he’s at 66% shooting at the rim, ranked in just the 47th percentile among bigs, after shooting 76% for the Bucks last year. But that encompasses all types of shots there. Here’s a more specific breakdown of his shot type frequency for plays we’d typically associate with the paint, as well as points per possession and where he ranks in terms of efficiency across the league.
Brook Lopez’s Inside Shot Diet
The important number that’s not on here: his post-ups have nearly doubled in terms of raw numbers, from one per game last year to 1.8 this season. That may not seem substantial, but when defenses start to take away Milwaukee’s typical offensive sets, being able to throw Brook Lopez against smaller defenders has become a viable threat this season. Now, let’s look at some of the benefits Riley discussed and see how Brook has lived up to them.
Give Giannis a Break
The idea here is simple: let Giannis catch a breath while someone else does the heavy lifting. Beyond the break while he’s on the court, it’s also worth examining whether this could be a viable strategy to buy a few buckets while Giannis rests in the postseason. As we know, Milwaukee posted a -10.3 net rating with their stud on the bench during last year’s Conference Finals. The Bucks need to manufacture offense during those periods or risk another flame-out.
I don’t have access to a perfect confluence of data sources for this, but the recently refreshed NBAWowy (so much smoother than before) actually pulls data on specific types of shots Brook Lopez has taken with Giannis off the floor.
Brook Shot Location 2019-20
|%FGA 0-3 FT
|%FGA 4-9 FT
|%FGA 10-15 FT
|%FGA 16+ FT
|%FGA 0-3 FT
|%FGA 4-9 FT
|%FGA 10-15 FT
|%FGA 16+ FT
|Giannis Off Court
|Giannis On Court
As you can see, with Giannis off the floor Brook tends to move his offensive game to the interior. He’s shooting better within 0-3 feet with Giannis on the court, but that drops down to around 64.2% with him off. That’s not too surprising given he’s supposed to be the focal point of the offense at that point, but it’s still a serviceable number for a big.
Per Cleaning The Glass, the team still has a +6.6 points per 100 possessions differential with Brook on the floor and Giannis off. That’s worse than last year’s +9.0 mark in that same scenario. As the Playoffs wear on, there will be fewer minutes where Brook wouldn’t be sharing the floor with GIannis though, so it’s generally more important to examine how he performs as a complementary piece. Which brings us to our next section...
Punish Teams for Going Small
This, more than any other benefit, is the strategic crux of this argument. Inevitably, teams are going to try and downsize in the Playoffs, and with Brook Lopez working as a floor spacer, a team doesn’t need to devote a traditional big to always guard him. A team like the Rockets could get away with their smallball lineups because Lopez doesn’t offer the traditional pounding threat as an offensive rebounder or skilled post player while he’s parked on the perimeter. Instead, teams can load up on Giannis and key in on him as he barrels towards the rim.
Brook’s post play could theoretically crack that code with proficient enough finishing. Even if Giannis isn’t on the court, here’s a perfect example from a Hawks game, who experimented with a slender John Collins as their nominal five. Lopez gets the ball on the block, bullies his way a little lower and draws a slick and-one for the finish.
Here’s another against the Raptors, who are playing without Marc Gasol on the floor at the time. Kyle Lowry is switched onto Brook, who offloads him to his teammate as Brook cuts through to an open slot on the block after swinging the ball to Khris Middleton on the left beyond the arc. Khris hits him as Brook is double-teamed into a low-block sandwich before pivoting into space and using his height to easily get a shot off over Chris Boucher.
He’s not a perfect hook shooter, nobody is, as NBA.com has him hitting 56.5% on 62 attempts, but the theory of shots like this make sense within the Bucks offense. Watch as the Clippers suffocating defense, with Paul George hounding Giannis and Kawhi Leonard lurking in, forces Antetokounmpo to make the right read and find Brook as an outlet valve. It’s less Brook taking on the burden himself, but more him punishing the Clippers for playing smaller with Montrezl Harrell at their five. Now, Harrell ate Milwaukee alive in their matchups, but if Brook can force Harrell’s inferior height and defense to be debilitating to the point the Clips simply can’t stop Milwaukee, that will muck up any Clippers hope for smallball supreme.
The NBA offers insanely granular breakdowns of players shots now, almost verging on parody with the jumble of adjectives tossed atop. I highly recommend checking out the site for more detail if you’re interested.
Break up the monotony of a 4/25 shooting stretch from three
This is an affliction Brook Lopez knows all too well this year, as his iffy shooting has plummeted Milwaukee into dry spells several times throughout the season. Bud’s Bucks won’t deviate from their trigger-happy ways, but their accuracy, as in the last year’s conference finals, should be a realistic concern for all Bucks fans. Right now, they’re betting on quantity over quality, with only three dead-eye shooters in Khris Middleton, Kyle Korver and George Hill, followed by a bunch of ~30-36% gunners from deep.
One of the pieces that impressed me most about last year’s Playoff series against the Boston Celtics was the continued pursuit, especially in third quarters, of finding ways to get buckets so the Celts couldn’t crawl all the way back from Milwaukee’s lead. Giannis, in particular, led that charge. But this season, the Bucks will need players to pick up those “just get a bucket, no matter how we do it” possessions with Malcolm Brogdon out of the fold.
Here’s a prime example from last year’s Playoff series against Toronto, when the Bucks are starting to bleed points while Giannis is out of the lineup. As the Raptors slowly inch their way back, Milwaukee just needs a bucket to stem the tide. With no true center out there, the downsized Raptors end up with Norman Powell on Lopez down low. The elder Lopez twin calls for it, gets the high pass from Ilyasova, and bullies his way underneath for an and-one as Leonard can’t recover in time. These are the types of in-between minutes that the Bucks have to at least hold steady when the games really matter.
Use it or Lose it
To this point, Lopez’s paint dominance remains a competent enough weapon to make it worthwhile. His 1.08 points per possession (ppp) on post-ups, albeit on low volume, is still 86th percentile and right at this year’s league average of 1.09 (per Inpredictable). When your team is facing an offensive rut, even an average possession can feel like a life raft.
With teams likely trying to downsize or shift their defensive focus to Giannis at all times, it is incumbent upon complementary players like Lopez to take a bit of the burden off of him. Post possessions aren’t inherently efficient, but even a basket or two from Brook in a game could be enough to force defenses to key in on him a little more. He’s not a supremely gifted passer, but he’s been around enough to find an outlet if he draws any sort of extra attention defensively. The smart teams will leave him on an island, settling for any kind of post-finish over an open trey or shot from other Bucks, but that’s when Lopez will have to keep teams honest.
His 3-point propensity to this point hasn’t led to a downturn in his effectiveness in the paint, albeit on significantly lower volume. During a year where his three ball seemed destined to not turn around to last year’s 36% levels, Bud may have to rely on the post game as a way to integrate Brook more offensively during any particularly putrid shooting spells.
During the Playoffs, use it or lose it won’t just apply to Brook, but perhaps more so the team in general. Offensive diversity will be required against cagier defenses. Use it or lose it could prove a fitting phrase for Milwaukee’s title hopes.