I think it’s fair to say Brook Lopez belongs on the mini Mt. Rushmore of Milwaukee Bucks free agent signings. If they made statues for fringe moves (maybe ice carvings each winter?), Lopez would certainly be deserving. His staying power near the top of our ranking the roster exercise reflects what a transformative impact he’s had on this team, even as we’ve seen Giannis Antetokounmpo ascend this past postseason into his primacy as the pre-eminent “smallball” big. That Brook landed at four isn’t a surprise to me, but I do think he’s in a tier of his own, well below the big three but comfortably above the folks beneath him. I understand why Bobby Portis lasted so long, but my current view of this team’s chances to repeat is informed probably 60% by the Nets series alone. In that Game Seven, in Brooklyn, on the road, with 30-odd years of Game Seven road failures dragging behind the franchise, Lopez made a decisive block in overtime and played 46 minutes.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of media narratives these past few seasons can recite Lopez’s transformation by heart. From post brute to 3-point shooter, Lopez evolved his game to better fit in the modern NBA ecosystem, but particularly on this Milwaukee team where Giannis reigns supreme down low. Still, we saw Lopez returns to his roots a bit in the latter half of last regular season, a trend which carried over into the postseason. There’s no reason he should be planting himself inside and trudging on Giannis’s territory, but he found astute ways to work off-ball, rumblin’ & stumblin’ into passing lanes for Jrue Holiday in the postseason. He had some absolutely mammoth dunks in the Playoffs off those cuts and his 33-point Game Five performance against Atlanta still stands as one of my favorite memories.
Last year, Brook’s 3-point percentage ticked up to 33.8% after 31.4% the year prior. He remains a “meh” shooter, but one that teams continue to respect given his quick trigger. One of Milwaukee’s defensive calling cards the past few seasons has been that they typically allow so-so above-the-break 3-point shooters to fire away at their heart’s content. Eventually, the thought is they’ll stop shooting, or at the very least Bud’s coaching staff trusts the math to work in their favor. I don’t feel like I’ve seen many Milwaukee opponents adopt that strategy against Lopez, but I’d be curious if anyone tries it out this season. Of course, a potential antidote is allowing Lopez to park in the corners, something Bud employed more starting in the bubble. It’s only in bite sizes though, just 11% of his deep balls came from the corners last year.
The inside game really did overtake his deep ball in the postseason — 41% of his shots came at the rim per Cleaning The Glass in the Playoffs vs. 31% from 3-point land. That’s the reverse of how those shot frequency figures have looked in the past few years. “Brook in the post” was oft discussed in the 2019-20 season as Milwaukee’s radical offensive revolution, but the introduction of the dunker spot eventually yielded a far more efficient, natural way for Lopez to use his finesse inside without relying on iffy-efficiency post-ups. Of course, he remains a force in helping Milwaukee’s defensive rebounding as well.
He showed enough chops as a switchable defender in the Atlanta series that Bud even trotted him out to try the same thing against Chris Paul and Devin Booker in the Finals. They smartly switched away from that strategy, but the real issue at that point was that Milwaukee was allowing Paul to iso on Lopez with 15+ remaining on the shot clock; once they started forcing Phoenix to start their actions later, Lopez might’ve been able to handle it in spurts. Still, it showcased the fact that Milwaukee still relied sizably on their base drop coverage — where Lopez remains a master. He spent the entire first round living rent-free in Bam Adebayo’s head, neutering Miami’s best hope of short-circuiting Bud’s defensive scheme. And once again, he allowed only 49.3% opponent shooting at the rim last regular season. For reference, Rudy Gobert allowed 50.1%.
I’ve seen a decent number of teams hand out gaudy contracts to centers these past few seasons, whether it’s Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela or Jarrett Allen. I think Milwaukee’s found the proper calculus. Yes, Brook is up to $13.3M this year, a sizable enough salary, but also commensurate with the idea he’s probably most useful around 25-30 minutes in a Playoff game. Teams need to be able to play flexibly both big and small, and spending hefty sums of cap space on centers that could easily be played off the floor in the postseason seems like a foolish use of resources. The Bucks are spoiled with Giannis, but they rightly haven’t overpay for a center either. Beyond all the on-court performances, how can you not love Brook after this:
Let’s keep it rolling and see who comes out third among our Big Three in the weekend poll.
The 3rd Most Important Player to Milwaukee’s Postseason Success is...
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This poll will close at 8 pm Central on Sunday, September 26.