Milwaukee Bucks: Brook Lopez’s offensive impact

Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images /

Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez may not be the production monster he was in the past, but he remains a high-impact offensive player.

Almost invariably, discussion of offense trends toward production. That makes sense, because individual points and assists, and how a player accumulates those numbers, are extremely important and relatively easy to see.

Thankfully, we’ve developed really sophisticated ways to discuss production. Beyond box score numbers, we now have play type data to illustrate how effectively and often a player produces.

Far more nebulous is impact. There are on/off differentials and plus-minus stats that attempt to adjust those on/off differentials to isolate individual impact, but it’s still hard to properly capture how Player X changes his team.

While it’s often easy to forget, basketball is a team game. The objective is for each player to make his team better. Certain players do that through gaudy box score numbers, while others prefer subtlety, quietly making the game easier for their teammates.

New Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez undoubtedly fits into the latter category.

Lopez was a high-end producer for nine seasons with the Brooklyn Nets, crossing the golden threshold of 20 points per game four times and even stumbling into an All-Star appearance.

In his lone season with the Los Angeles Lakers, his production would indicate Lopez experienced sharp decline. After averaging 18.6 points per game during his Nets career (en route to becoming Brooklyn’s all-time leading scorer), Lopez posted a meager 13 points per game with the Lakers.

Lopez’s offensive impact, however, remained high.

The Lakers’ offense was better with Lopez on than off the court, even though the plodding center wasn’t a natural fit in their transition-heavy offense. Lopez had the league’s 11th-highest Offensive Real Plus-Minus among all centers.

The key to Lopez’s offensive impact is positional shooting:

Lopez’s 34.5 percent shooting from 3-point range, below league-average in 2017-18, doesn’t pop, but there’s a vital piece of context to consider.

From the corners, Lopez is a far better shooter. He shot a smoldering 47 percent from the corners in 2017-18. Lopez only took 43 corner 3s, though. The vast majority of Lopez’s attempts (281, not including heaves and garbage time) came from above the break.

Lopez attempted 34 percent of his shots from above the break, ranking in the 81st percentile among all bigs in above-the-break frequency. Where corner 3s have minimal team impact, simply offering efficient production, above-the-break 3s open up a team’s offense:

Lopez shot 33 percent on non-corner 3s last year. He’s no Stephen Curry, but he generated one point per shot – not half bad in the half-court. Lopez is good enough to be guarded, which forces centers, who are expected to offer rim protection, to cover more ground to contest at the rim.

It’s not as if defenders stay glued to him, but Lopez adds another element to think about, and when defenders have more to think about, they’re far more likely to experience the slight delay that represents the difference between stonewalling a guy at the rim and offering a weak, ineffectual contest.

What makes Lopez so valuable, though, is that his floor-spacing comes in an unmistakably “traditional center” package:

Lopez likes to hang around the perimeter, but that tendency shouldn’t be mistaken for softness that can be guarded by a smaller, quicker player, because Lopez remains a damn good throwback in the post.

Lopez’s minutes and usage fell to career-lows last year, so his overall post possessions declined, but his efficiency and frequency in the post remained high. In 2017-18, Lopez used 25.5 percent of his possessions in the post, scoring 0.95 points per possession (72.1 percentile). He was not far behind his 27 percent frequency and 0.97 points per possession (75.8 percentile) in 2016-17.

I’d hesitate to call Lopez’s post game beautiful — he wants to turn left shoulder and muscle his way to a hook shot every single time — but there’s no denying its effectiveness. Proficient post scoring on its own doesn’t carry a lot of team impact, but Lopez is a capable and willing post passer, too:

Lopez isn’t Nikola Jokic, but he’ll dime up cutters or hit a spot-up shooter when his man digs down. With passes included, Lopez’s points per possession mark in the post rose from 0.95 to 1.009 in 2017-18 (77th percentile), per Synergy.

It’s not elite offense, but Lopez can create for himself and others in the post when necessary, whether that’s to punish a mismatch or anchor a unit in need of offense.

Despite decreased counting numbers in 2017-18, Brook Lopez remained one of the better offensive centers in basketball. With the Bucks, he’ll be the floor-spacing capital “C” Center the team has needed for years.

Lopez will nail the corner 3s Thon Maker’s been clanking for two years. He’ll be the post scorer John Henson’s never been. More importantly, though, Lopez will open driving lanes by spotting up beyond the arc. He’ll draw cutters and shooters open from the post.

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I wouldn’t expect gaudy production from Lopez in Milwaukee, but his offensive impact should remain high. Quietly, Lopez will make basketball easier for his teammates and offense better for his team.