Brook's defense key to Bucks' hot start

By: Louis Zatzman - 11/11/22

It’s rare that teams win a championship, fail to reach the Finals the following season, and then win a championship the one after that; the Milwaukee Bucks may be 10-1, with the best record in the league, but history is not on their side in their quest to win another title. Historically, of the 21 teams that won a championship between 2000 and 2020, 11 failed to return to the Finals the following year. Of those, two went on to win the championship the next season after that: the San Antonio Spurs in 2003 and 2005.

Milwaukee is on a mission to buck history by joining the Spurs in that unique group. In many ways, the success of that quest rests on the shoulders of Brook Lopez. The longtime shapeshifter is having to reinvent his role once again in his 15th NBA season.

Lopez began his career as a dominant offensive center, averaging 18.6 points per game over nine seasons as the starting big for the New Jersey / Brooklyn Nets. He scored the second-most of any center in the league over that time period and as a result still owns the franchise record in points. He was a bruiser in the paint. Then he became a 3-point shooter in 2016-17 and has attempted at least 4.0 per game in each of his last seven seasons; only 82 players have recorded seven or more such seasons, and only Lopez and Dirk Nowitzki have done so while standing 7 feet or taller. Now the Bucks need Lopez to change his game again -- on the defensive end. 

The Bucks reinvented NBA defense several years ago. They decided that while the NBA entered the pace-and-space era, and 3-point attempts skyrocketed, they would blockade the rim on defense and willingly concede a high number of triples. That worked like a charm for years, as Milwaukee enjoyed the second-best defense in the league in 2018-19 and the best in 2019-20. Then Milwaukee adapted its defense slightly, adding more switching against the pick and roll. But the same priority remained undergirding the system: Give up threes, if necessary, but do not sacrifice the rim. A championship was the result.

Yet in many ways, that philosophical preference put the Bucks at a deficit in the 2021-22 playoffs against the Boston Celtics. Boston attempted 88 more 3-pointers over the seven-game series, making almost twice as many bombs (110 versus 57). At the same time, the Bucks attempted 64 more shots from within five feet and shot more efficiently from that range, too. Milwaukee won the paint but lost the arc -- and lost the series. Milwaukee may have innovated defensively for the past several seasons, but a further innovation was needed.

This season, Milwaukee has decided that no defensive sacrifice needs to be made at all. In the past, the Bucks have packed the paint as much as possible, trusting that the length of Lopez in combination with Giannis Antetokounmpo can dissuade or deter any shots. That was true, but it turns out, Lopez can do that just as well on his own. 

Because the Bucks trust Lopez on his own at the rim, they have in large part stopped tagging the roller during opposing pick and rolls. A “tag” is when an extra defender, usually coming from a corner of the court, will slide into the paint to deter a pass to the screener. That helps to defend the paint, but it opens up passing lanes to uncontested shooters around the arc -- particularly where the tagger used to be. The Bucks used to be a relatively high-frequency tag team, but they have almost dispensed with it this season. Lopez has been on an island in the paint. (Or have opponents been on an island with him?)

Last year, Lopez had help during pick and rolls more frequently, with the weakside defender responsible for the corner sinking into the paint to dissuade the pass to the rolling big.

Jrue tags the roller

This year, Milwaukee’s defenders in the corners have stayed at home, discouraging passes out for triples, and leaving Lopez in the paint on his own for a moment. Eventually, because Milwaukee’s guards fight over the screen, they will return to the play, but Lopez has to hold down the fort until that happens. It’s a tough ask for any center to backpedal out of the pick and roll while challenging the ballhandler’s shot and pass both. Most bigs need help. Yet this season’s lack of help hasn’t resulted in issues for Lopez.

Brook alone against PnR

This season, Lopez is contesting 8.0 shots per game that are within six feet of the rim, and opponents are shooting 10.8 percentage points lower on those shots than expected. He has never contested so many shots around the rim, at least since SportsVU cameras began tracking it in 2013-14. Such a frequency of challenges puts him sixth in the league in shots contested within six feet per game, and none higher are forcing as many misses. It’s not just the subtle numbers, but the obvious ones, too; Lopez is also blocking 2.7 shots per game, a surefire way to stop opponents at the rim. He’s setting a career high there, too, as well as leading the league.

There’s more Lopez is doing. He’s defending the most isolations per game of his career. He’s running a further average distance per game than he has since 2015-16. All told, he’s defending the rim without as much help for Milwaukee and doing it better than ever, all while extending his influence on the defensive end over further distances.

Brook Lopez  Player Speed & Distance for 2022-23

Brook Lopez11375.

As a result, the way in which Milwaukee’s defense impacts the court has changed. It used to turn the rim into Area 51 for opponents -- so well guarded and secret that it may as well not exist. And indeed, that’s still the case; opponents take 30.6 percent of their shots at the rim, the fifth-lowest in the league, per Cleaning the Glass. They make only 60.8 percent of their shots there. When Milwaukee won its championship in 2020-21, opponents made 61.7 percent of their shots at the rim. 


But now the Bucks are allowing only 33.2 percent of opposing field-goal attempts to come from behind the arc, the eighth-lowest rate in the league. During the last four seasons, the Bucks allowed the most, third-most, fifth-most, and second-most, respectively. Milwaukee decided to wall off the paint and the arc, choosing the best of both worlds. So from where are opponents taking their shots against Milwaukee? By and large, the dreaded midrange. Even with Khris Middleton still out with injury, and Milwaukee’s offense taking a step back to start the season, the math remains in the Bucks’ favor. 

Inside the Mind: Brook's Defense

That’s what it takes for teams to upend historical trends: continued innovation. The Bucks entered the season with almost complete roster continuity -- 96 percent of its regular-season minute totals so far have gone to players who were on the roster last year. Milwaukee hasn’t been able to innovate externally, to add new and exciting players to the rotation (Joe Ingles is targeting a return in the new year). So to return to the promised land of the NBA, the Bucks needed to change how they played, rather than who was playing. Milwaukee’s head coach, Mike Budenholzer, was an assistant coach on the championship Spurs teams in 2003 and 2005; they, like the Bucks now, by and large had to improve internally rather than externally to win more championships. For these Bucks, Lopez has been the key.

There are a variety of possible outcomes as a result of Milwaukee’s philosophic shift and Lopez’s ability to make it work. The latter should be thought of as one of the premier defensive players in the league, but Lopez and company have their sights set higher than acclaim within league circles -- nothing less than another title. Front and center in that chase is Lopez and his ability to reinvent himself yet again, just as he has done his entire career.