Milwaukee Bucks

Can Brook Lopez still be effective for Milwaukee in the playoffs?

There is perhaps no figure more emblematic of the NBA’s 3-point revolution than Brook Lopez. Once a back-to-the-basket center who shot just 31 triples his first eight seasons — and only seven before 2015-16 — Lopez has now attempted nearly 1,000 since 2016-17.

As a rookie, 53 percent of his shots came at the rim; it’s down to a career-low 20 percent this season. Lopez is the Milwaukee Bucks’ human catapult. He stands idly by, sometimes well beyond the arc, observing Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe enjoy the benefits of his spacing, always ready to launch. Nowadays, a staggering 67 percent of his field goals come from deep and he’s connecting on 37.1 percent of them.

Swapping out (former) non-shooter John Henson for Lopez in the starting lineup has worked wonders for Milwaukee’s offense. With the 11-year veteran on the floor, its offense is blitzing teams to the tune of 116.3 points per 100 possessions. Without him, that mark craters to 102.6. There isn’t a more drastic offensive rating swing on the team.

Given his willingness to fire away on above-average efficiency, Lopez’s mere perimeter presence commands respect. With defensive anchors drawn outside the paint, driving lanes are pried open for ball-handlers like Antetokounmpo, Bledsoe, Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon:

That is the resourcefulness of capable 3-point shooting bigs. The interior is a blank canvas for teammates to feast at the rim. It’s even more prevalent when you pair the rim-charging Antentokounmpo with Lopez, who is the first center in NBA history to shoot at least six 3s per game and the fourth to shoot 10-plus per 100 possessions — though, the other three all played fewer than 10 minutes per game.

He will not pass up good looks in the name of flair. He lumbers around closeouts if the opportunity presents itself but any kick out or ball rotation hurled his way usually results in an attempt. When defenders play off to protect the basket, teammates wield the vision to find Lopez and exploit ignorance:

He is not just a corner 3 specialist; in fact, 52 of his 69 makes have arrived above the break (non-corners). On pick-and-pops, Lopez torches bigs who drop back and anticipate beelines to the hoop. Those sequences can evoke reflections for the Bucks, who acknowledge their center’s limited mobility and fluidity by sagging him in pick-and-roll defense at the other end of the floor.

Catering to his strengths is a mutually beneficial relationship for Lopez and the Bucks. Individually, he ranks 37th in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus at plus-1.86 and among the 62 players who have defended at least 100 shots from six feet and in, his 52.3 defensive field goal percentage sits 13th. While the Bucks have been marginally better without him, posting a 101.6 defensive rating, they remain stifling at 101.8 when Lopez is on the court.

Worries regarding Lopez’s modernity and Milwaukee’s scheme persist, however. Drop coverage is a common philosophy, particularly in the regular season when wide-eyed floor generals are less adept and more susceptible to the bait of open runways toward asphyxiating rim protectors.

To an extent, it is commendable that Lopez recognizes his deficiencies. He does not try to generate highlight-reel clips and lock down guards on the perimeter. Head coach Mike Budenholzer demands that he relaxes inside to stonewall those who challenge him and Lopez does just that.

Although, teams are hoisting up a league-high 35.9 3-pointers against Milwaukee every night — 1.5 more than the 29th-ranked Brooklyn Nets. In fairness, not all of this is tied to Lopez and his preference for sticking to the paint, though it is an encapsulation of the tactic he typifies. Good defenders adhere to the scheme in place and don’t toss away the walkie-talkie to go rogue. For the most part, he’s following orders. Yet some of the defensive rules the Bucks are following were enacted because of Lopez’s flaws.

He is not a versatile defender who’s primed to excel in a switching, hedging or trapping approach. Milwaukee plops him back as a necessity. Problems arise when he begins helping when it’s unnecessary, sparking welcomed shots for the opposition.

This is a byproduct of drop coverage. Hammer it into a big man’s head that he must always spook away ball-handlers near the basket and instincts jump out at any drive — even if there are defenders in place to alter shots, like Antentokounmpo and his 7-foot-3 wingspan.

The sincerest round of applause is deserved for Lopez’ adaptability on offense. He has shifted from a high-usage post player on a perennial lottery team to an ancillary weapon on a club with the NBA’s best net rating. Everyone’s life is easier with him stationed around the arc, bombing treys at a rate like no other center in history. Not a single Buck sports a better composite net rating on-off seesaw than him.

But there will come a point in the playoffs when he is pitted against perimeter threats — Al Horford, Myles Turner and Serge Ibaka come to mind — with an important postseason milestone confronting the Bucks. Encouraging him to execute conservative closeouts and at least force floor-spacers to pause before firing could be the difference in a series. Some of the evolution will need to bubble naturally, though.

Identifying the spots when help defense is truly mandatory and being discretionary with stunts or rotations off the ball are the routes to maximizing his impact, despite the fact Milwaukee will likely continue to deploy him solely as a block party enthusiast.

Next: On a scale of one to basketball: Counting rings with credit deserved

Many teams don’t toss out every playoff wrinkle during the regular season. Maybe the Bucks are one of them. As they are currently constructed, there are concerns about their ceiling in April and beyond. Lopez is a remarkable case study as it pertains to offensive malleability. If Milwaukee wants to conjure up serious noise, he’ll have to become a similar example defensively, too.

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