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How Brook Lopez turbocharges the Bucks’ offense by just standing at the 3-point line

The lumbering center has one simple job: stand far away from the basket and space the floor. Here’s why that’s so impactful.

Here’s a tip for making one of the NBA’s most exciting teams incredibly boring: spend the entire time watching Brook Lopez. Ignore Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledose, and the beautiful Moreyball offense that Mike Budenholzer has built in Milwaukee, and instead focus your eyes entirely on their plodding center.

You’re gonna get a lot of this:

And this:

And this:

And this:

While the other Bucks get to run around, Brook Lopez’s job is to stand in one place and never move. If the ball comes to him, he shoots it. If not, he just chills.

This is an oversimplification, but not that much of one. According to player-tracking data, Lopez runs at an average speed of 3.96 miles per hour, more than two-tenths of a mile slower than the second-slowest Buck who plays rotation minutes. The effect is even more pronounced on offense: Lopez’s average speed is 0.37 miles per hour slower than second-place Malcolm Brogdon, a margin greater than the difference between Brogdon and the fastest in-game player on the team (Thon Maker).

Lopez thus has the dream job of any washed pickup player. He gets to run three-point line to three-point line, launch super-long shots if he does get the ball at a solid 37-percent clip, and doesn’t owe his team much more than his mere presence when he doesn’t.

Better yet, this incredibly simple job is incredibly valuable to the Bucks. When Lopez is in the game, Milwaukee’s offense is unstoppable, scoring more than 118 points per 100 possessions with a whopping 62.6 true shooting percentage. That’s the equivalent of having an entire team of LeBron Jameses on offense. When Lopez is out of the game, Milwaukee scores only 105.8 points per 100 possessions with a 55.9 true shooting percentage, which is more like having an entire team of Aaron Gordons.

How can a player whose job is to stand at the three-point line be so valuable? There’s a simple answer and a more complex answer.

The simple answer is that Lopez’s shooting ability draws the opposing team’s center out of the paint, opening up easy driving lanes for Antetokounmpo. The Greek Freak doesn’t need a jumper to dominate ... except when teams could defend him with one man on the ball and their biggest player hovering around the hoop. Under the previous Bucks regime, Milwaukee always played with a traditional center that stood around the basket, which only added another roadblock in Antetokounmpo’s path.

Subbing in Lopez for that more traditional center moves that additional obstacle out of Antetokounmpo’s way. If that defender hangs around the rim anyway, Lopez splashes threes.

This answer seems so simple that you wonder how the Bucks didn’t think of it sooner. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say that giving the most dominant driver in the league more space to drive is an idea worth trying. If that’s all it took, just hire any Bucks fan as the head coach. Hell, just hire anyone who’s ever watched a basketball game. They could have told you that.

So why didn’t this simple idea come to the Bucks until now? That brings us to the more complicated answer.

Start with this: it’s hard to find a three-point shooting, role-playing center, even these days. How many Brook Lopezes are there around the league? How many of those players can be signed for the bi-annual exception of $3.3 million? How many of them are willing to play a secondary role and fully lean into it? That list shrinks in a hurry. (That it does is its own conversation, but we’ll come back to that).

The center part is worth repeating. While Lopez is essential to the success of Budenholzer’s new system, he’s also working in tandem with three other players who are also shooting threats and encouraged to let it fly. The effect of swapping Lopez in for centers who don’t shoot is magnified when Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, and Khris Middleton are also changing their shooting diets. Otherwise, teams could just defend Lopez like a guard and a lesser threat as the big guy.

That’s the thing: the Bucks really lean into the idea that the paint is Giannis’ domain and Giannis’ domain only. When Giannis grabs a defensive rebound, the other four Bucks treat the paint as if its full of lava. They jog to their spot along the three-point arc, leaving Giannis all the space in the world to tap-dance to the rim.

This strategy of not running in transition goes against the grain for all positions, but it especially goes against the grain for centers. Lopez is almost always the biggest player on the court, yet he’s rarely asked to go to the place where his size would be of most use.

The three-point line to three-point line approach that an out-of-shape pickup player uses is done out of necessity, in a game with no real stakes. (Apologies if this insults your very competitive pickup run). It comes a lot less naturally as a matter of tactical strategy. It requires a pro to unlearn years of habits — and actually be willing and able to do so.

That’s harder than it sounds. On the surface, Lopez’s incredibly specific role and the logic that necessitated it was so basic that even NBA cavemen should have spotted it. If Lopez can admirably perform the role of Large Man Who Stands At The Three-Point Line And Shoots When Open, why can’t other seven-footers do it, too? If all it took to unlock the Bucks’ potential was to play a shooting center, why didn’t they do it sooner? (Or, stated another way: if the logic of putting a shooting center to space the floor for a dominant driver was so intuitive, why didn’t the Lakers keep Lopez after they got LeBron James?).

The reason is that the answer to both questions is, in a way, too obvious. Psychologists refer to this as the Paradox of Expertise: the more immersed one is in a particular subject, the harder it is to spot new solutions that would seem clear to outsiders. This explains why industries get disrupted, and why expert forecasters are often no better at predicting the future in their respective fields than novices. The more one learns about a subject, the more they develop mental shortcuts that process new information through the prism of what they already know.

Professional basketball is hardly immune from this mental trap. Other big men won’t play Lopez’s limited role not because they aren’t capable skill-wise, but because it’s counterintuitive to what they’ve been taught their entire lives. Most coaches won’t seek out players with Lopez’s skill set even as shooting has become essential because it’s counterintuitive to take your biggest player and relegate him to spectator duty. What seems self-evident to outside observers is actually incredibly difficult for insiders to wrap their heads around.

Finding that eureka moment requires pairing people with uncommon life experiences at the right time. There’s a reason a player like Lopez, who has spent years toiling at those more traditional habits, is uniquely suited to this obvious-yet-not-obvious job.

Three years ago, Lopez averaged 8.6 paint touches per game, eighth-most among all NBA players who logged at least 20 minutes. This was his shot heatmap.

The Nets won 21 games that year with Lopez playing like a basketball player of his build traditionally does. That was his eighth season with the team, and in that time, his team won a total of three playoff games with him on the court. (The one time the Nets advanced to the second round of the playoffs was in 2013-14, when Lopez was out with a broken foot). Playing the role of the tower of power had brought Lopez and the Nets years of empty calories.

The next season, Kenny Atkinson came in and Lopez went from 14 three-pointers attempted to 387. The league was changing and Lopez already had his money and his numbers, so what did he have to lose? After a brief odyssey in Los Angeles, Lopez found himself a free agent for the first time in years, at a stage of his career where he could be liberated to just play a role. The Bucks, desperate for new ideas after hitting a glass ceiling under a previous regime and faced with a ticking hourglass on their gift from the basketball gods, offered that chance.

Now, this is his shot heatmap.

Because of these unique circumstances, Lopez actually has a higher purpose in this basketball life instead of toiling in obscurity. He’s appreciated for his strengths (shooting) instead of feeling held back by his limitations (rebounding, defense, etc.). In a way, this Bucks experience is most akin to his formative years, when he became a lottery pick thanks to the symbiotic on-court relationship he had with his twin brother. Much as Robin’s blue-collar game once complemented Brook’s burgeoning offensive skill set, so to does Brook’s highly specialized offensive role complement Antetokounmpo’s ability to do literally anything.

So while Antetokounmpo gets to do stuff like this...

... Lopez is able to stand over here and enjoy the show.

... or take (and sometimes make in bunches) audacious shots like these.

If he still wants to get some of his dunking fix, he can do that, just on different terms.

So yes, anyone can play the role Lopez is playing. If one’s goal is to be important while expending the least energy possible, it sounds like a dream job. And yes, any team with a generational talent like Antetokounmpo can make a decision to prioritize that star’s biggest strengths at all costs.

But actually doing it requires something we’re all chasing in life: the right person at the right time. That makes Brook Lopez and the Milwaukee Bucks the perfect marriage. They found each other at the right place and the right time.