Defensive Player Ladder

Defensive Player Ladder: Bucks' Brook Lopez rises to No. 1

The NBA leader in blocks climbs to the top in the latest ranking of the league's best defenders.

Brook Lopez grabs the No. 1 spot from teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo on the latest Defensive Player Ladder.

If you talk about Brook Lopez and his NBA career, the first challenge is to specify which one. Because Lopez has shown several faces to the league in his 15 seasons.

The first, for nine seasons with New Jersey/Brooklyn after arriving as the No. 10 pick in the 2008 Draft, was a dominant low-post scorer and so-so rebounder. Lopez still ranks as the Nets franchise’s all-time leading scorer (10,444).

More recently, Brook Lopez gained notoriety for moving his offensive game out to the 3-point line. The guy who took only nine 3-pointers in his first seven seasons and 33 total with the Nets — 0.52% of his shot attempts overall — has put up more than half (52.4%) from that distance in five seasons with Milwaukee.

And now at 34, Lopez finds himself a candidate, maybe even the early-season favorite, for the newly-named Hakeem Olajuwon Trophy. That’s how striking his work has become for the Bucks in their evolving defensive strategies under coach Mike Budenholzer.

The Bucks rank No. 1 both in defensive rating (106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) and in opponents’ effective field-goal percentage (50.7%), and a key to both has been Lopez’s added responsibilities this season in moving farther from the rim and challenging both players in opponents’ pick-and-roll sets. He was an easy choice for a Q&A in this month’s Kia Defensive Ladder spotlight.

Editor’s note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited. How are you holding up? You’re logging the most playing time (31.2 mpg) since you were 27 years old.

Lopez: I couldn’t believe it when I heard that. But I feel good. I’ve got my PTs [physical therapists] taking care of me. I’m healthy after the [back] surgery from last year. So I’m doing good.

You’re blocking shots at the highest rate of your career (2.9 per game). Those can be overrated in assessing defensive performers, but it’s almost like they’ve been dismissed now to the point of being underrated. Where do you stand on blocks?

It does come back around. For me, it’s all about positioning. Just making sure you’re in the right spot at the right time. Obviously, I want to be there to protect my guy. If I get a blocked shot, that’s one way to do it. But there are a lot of ways of making sure it doesn’t even get to that point. Whether it’s guys getting back-screened and I’m helping by being there for a second in the paint. Or back doors, things of that nature, just taking away those easy looks.

Do you have a favorite type of block?

Oh, man. I like a lot of different kinds. I think my favorite is when someone’s coming in, trying to dunk you. When they’re on a fast break or they’ve got a head of steam downhill and think they have it, and you just go get it. I love that. It’s like a joust.

The Bucks’ biggest difference defensively this year is not being as willing to give up open 3-point looks. You’re heavily involved in extending farther out, and it’s clear you are asked to be more mobile. How have you kept up?

We are trying to rely more on the guys just in the play, as opposed to all five. To put more pressure on the two in the pick-and-roll or the 1-on-1, whatever it is. It’s about being up to the challenge. Again, I have to compliment our PTs and our strength-and-conditioning team, who got me back healthier than ever. We worked on a lot of stuff, just being able to move laterally quicker, get off the ground quicker, things like that.

How does one improve lateral quickness?

It’s a combination. We worked with, I think it’s called the “Run Rocket” to get some resistance training. We put the vest on and pull against that. I’ll do defensive slides against it. We’ll work on technique as well, for speed and force. And our nutritionist — I have to give a shout-out to our nutritionist Susie (Parker-Simmons) — just staying on me and the team generally, making sure we eat right and stay hydrated, things of that nature.

In a recent quote, you said you “relish” your defensive responsibilities. That has to put you in a select 2% club, an NBA coach’s dream when a player embraces that side of the ball.

I’ve definitely come to that. I’ve always been someone who takes pride in going on the court and trying to be the best. I’ve had a pretty unique career arc, doing a lot of different things over the years. However I was asked to do it, though, I wanted to have an effect on the game. Now I guess I’ve become more of a defensive anchor. That’s really where I hang my hat.

How much of defense is physical, how much is mental?

It’s probably, gosh, I don’t know if I can give an exact percentage. You can say 50-50, but I really want to say 100-100. They’re both so important. It’s definitely equal parts. A lot of it is experience from playing so long and seeing situations over and over. You see guys coming in the league, trying to learn everything at once — there’s so much. And the NBA game moves so fast. I remember coming out of my first Summer League game thinking, “Wow!” The NBA game on TV looks like it’s moving not at a slow pace but kind of methodical. Then you get in there and [snaps fingers] it’s going. Having to learn defense at that speed — live, in real-time — is a challenge. So just accumulating so much experience after all these years has made me a better defender, no question.

You were in your 12th season [2019-20] when you got voted to an All-Defense team. Did you wonder where those voters had been for so long or was that season different?

I’m proud of the recognition. I feel like I’ve grown as a defender over my time in the league and, no question, I’m thankful for that. And ever since I got to Milwaukee, to be on teams that typically are Top 3 in the league in defense. I just love that.

The Bucks also have Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 2020 DPOY, and Jrue Holiday, a four-time All-Defense guard. With defense it’s often said “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” but those are some terrific parts.

Those are two of the best defenders in the league right there. We’re blessed as a team. It’s scary, and we’re lucky to have those guys. Exponentially it just grows. And we’re versatile as well.

Defense is such a foundation of the Bucks’ culture. How would it go if a guy got to your team who simply wanted to put up points?

Man, he’d have to be really good at putting up points if he wasn’t going to deal with the other end.

(All stats through Monday, Nov. 7)

1. Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks

Lopez leads the league in blocks (Memphis’ Jaren Jackson is at 3.6 but hasn’t played enough to qualify among official leaders), as well as in defensive field goals attempted. His roaming has that number up to 22.4 per game, with shooters hitting 4% worse against him. His adjustments also have helped the Bucks drastically slice the average number of 3-point shots hoisted against them from 40.6 to 32, a 20% cut.

2. O.G. Anunoby, Toronto Raptors

All over the floor in matchups and activity for the Raptors, Anunoby is racking up impressive defensive stats. He leads the NBA in total deflections and averages 3.9 per game. He recovers 1.2 loose balls per game, tied for tops with Paul George. And notables Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Paolo Banchero, Donovan Mitchell and Jaylen Brown all have shot 40% or worse in matchup minutes vs. this O.G.

3. Dillon Brooks, Memphis Grizzlies

The return of Jaren Jackson Jr., who missed the Grizzlies’ first 14 games with a foot injury, got recent credit from Yahoo! NBA insider Dan Devine for his team’s defensive improvement. And Ja Morant sure noticed Jackson’s eight-swat work vs. Atlanta Monday. But inside the locker room, Memphis teammates tout Brooks for constantly drawing the toughest cover. Here’s a glimpse of his impact: the Grizz have been plus-153 when he’s been on the floor, minus-50 when he hasn’t. That’s 10 better at each end than Morant.

The Next Seven:

(In alphabetical order)

Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat

  • Hounded Indiana’s Tyrese Haliburton (0-for-9) Monday.

Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

  • Respected? Foes like Boston are game-planning for his defense.

Luguentz Dort, Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Dallas’ Doncic: “I need some pads next game” after Dort matchup.

Herb Jones, New Orleans Pelicans

Evan Mobley, Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Cavs another team riding two — Mobley and Jarrett Allen — to No. 1 ranking.

Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

  • With no Robert Williams, the 2022 DPOY shoulders bigger load.

Ivica Zubac, Los Angeles Clippers

  • Box outs, contested shots helping toward All-Defense goal.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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