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The Unsung Hero of Milwaukee

Brook Lopez. Photo by Singapore Sports Council. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton have formed a fairly deadly trio in Milwaukee. But in today’s NBA, a big man who can contribute on both ends has become a requirement for anyone that wants to compete for the title. And whereas some top teams have big name players like Pascal Siakam, Anthony Davis and Jayson Tatum to help spread the floor, the Bucks have a lesser known man leading that department. 31-year-old Brook Lopez. 

For the majority of his career I was by no means his biggest fan of Lopez, but since joining the Bucks in 2018 “Splash Mountain” has not only earned my respect, but by perfecting the “stretch big” position has become one of the most underrated big men in the league. Here’s how:

During his time on the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, Lopez was expected to lead the team. For him this meant scoring the ball which he did successfully — averaging 19 points per game over nearly a decade with the team. But those impressive offensive numbers came at the expense of his effort and impact on the other end. In his nine years with the Nets, Lopez averaged over eight rebounds per game just twice, and while his rejections hovered around a respectable 1.7 per game, you have to expect more from a 7-footer who spends the majority of his time in and around the paint. 

That role was turned on its head after Lopez signed with the Bucks in 2018.

Milwaukee’s system can be boiled down to this; Let Antetokounmpo work. The Greek Freak is 25 years old and already one of the most dominant players on the offensive end despite not having a stellar outside shot. His length and ability to get from the 3-point line to the hoop in two steps make him draw the attention of all five defenders, which in turn opens up plenty of opportunities for his teammates to strike from the outside. Likewise having teammates that are reliable from the perimeter opens up lanes for Giannis to either score or kick depending on how the D reacts. Enter Brook Lopez.

After attempting just 31 3-pointers during his first eight years in the league, Lopez upped his made 3’s to 134 in his ninth season, making them at an impressive 34% clip. His first year in Milwaukee those numbers jumped to 187 made threes at a 37% clip, and while his stats have regressed a bit this season it’s clear he’s a threat to score, which is enough for Giannis. Much of Lopez’ career was spent within 10 feet of the hoop, but he was able to make a relatively seamless transition beyond the arc, earning the respect of opposing players enough to let Giannis work his magic.

Even more impressive, though, was his much-improved defensive performance, going from a borderline liability to one of the top rim protectors in the league.

Lopez has always been able to block shots. Since joining the league in 2008 he has averaged over 1.5 rejections per game in all but one season when playing at least half the year’s games, but blocks do not always equate to impactful defense. During his stint with the Nets, Lopez never had a positive defensive plus/minus, expending all his energy on the offensive end. But with his usage percentage at a career low thanks to being paired with the reigning MVP, Lopez has been able to apply more effort on defense, resulting in career-bests in defensive plus/minus (+2.8), blocks per game (2.4) and block percentage (8%) while finishing with his second highest defensive win shares (3.9) of his career.

Stats aside,  Lopez adds to an already stellar defensive system of Middleton, Bledsoe and Giannis, which when combined with his length and improved positioning make it about as tough as it can be for opposing players to find points. Middleton and Bledsoe hold down the fort on the perimeter while Giannis and Lopez offer a “pick your poison” type wall inside, resulting in an NBA-best defensive rating for the second year running.

So while his main contribution has been on the defensive end, Lopez has made a seamless transition from a post-player to one who can kill you from the perimeter, working perfectly in unison with Giannis and playing a major role in the Bucks’ success this season, even if it may not appear so to the naked eye. Lopez has transitioned from a one-dimensional, pure scorer, to someone who can contribute and hurt opponents in multiple ways, and his impact is immense in allowing the Bucks to play how they want to. Kudos to you Brook.

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