Brook Lopez and his 3-Point Strides Will Be Missed by Brooklyn Nets

A career resurgence has been quietly hidden in the depressing chasm that’s crept over Brooklyn the past few seasons. Brook Lopez has added a three-point shot.

He made 134 of them last year while first-year head coach Kenny Atkinson’s offense teetered on D’Antonian levels of triplemania. His career total of makes prior to the 2016-17 season? Three.

A nearly ten-year veteran added such an impressive and difficult facet to his game, yet somehow Lopez’s incredible season has slipped beneath the national radar. Perhaps that’s due to the fact the Brooklyn Nets have been losing games for so long that casual fans have tuned them out completely. But this type of change in playing style and ability is absolutely stunning. Lopez now feels less like a back-to-the-basket center on the verge of extinction and more like a building block for a reliable offense.

The center was an All-Star in 2013 and has averaged more than 20 points per game in three of the four seasons since. He’s regularly above 80 percent from the charity stripe. He was even top 10 in the league in blocked shots last season. A rim-protector, 20-point scorer and efficient shooter, he needs to be talked about more, especially in terms of his overall value.

On the flip side of the equation, the Nets had a fantastic offseason in 2017. General manager Sean Marks made some shrewd moves to pick up valuable young players and/or draft picks by taking on salaries other teams couldn’t handle any longer. In absorbing DeMarre Carroll, they got a 2018 first-rounder. For merely having cap space, they got Allen Crabbe, one of the league’s top three-and-D, role-playing wings. And for eating Timofey Mozgov’s hideous contract, they got a shot at a potential franchise point guard in D’Angelo Russell…while giving up Lopez.

That cost may be steeper than most realize. It’s fair and right to laud the summer that Marks and his team have put together. Brooklyn lacked any type of flexibility and has been starving for young talent. With that influx of new faces has come renewed optimism that the franchise is heading in the right direction, and quickly. Many point at the Nets as a team bound for a much better finish next year, and they do so with little mention of the importance of Lopez’s absence.

It’s hardly any way to treat the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. Lopez has been so good that he deserves a fonder regard upon his departure and should cause predictors to pause about Brooklyn’s win total escalating.

Brook is a damn good offensive player who can score in one-on-one situations on the block against anyone. His inability to move gracefully and lack of explosive athleticism causes many to underrate his crafty offensive game and completely overlook any defensive impact. But Lopez has evolved over the years and become a formidably average rim-protector.

Only 20 players in the history of the league have multiple seasons in which they’ve tallied 1,500 points, 175 assists, 120 blocks and 120 offensive rebounds, and Lopez is one of them. He did it last season, becoming the first since Pau Gasol in 2011, as well as only the ninth player to log such a feat since the turn of the century. Stylistic playings of the game make this accomplishment even more impressive; offensive rebounds are rarer than ever, while few big men find themselves serving as both scorers and rim-protectors.

Still, it’s fair to be skeptical of his defensive impact. Despite his shot-blocking numbers, Brooklyn has regularly been better defensively without Lopez on the floor, and at no point in his nine-year career has the Nets defense finished a seasons in the top half of the league. At some point, though, a potent offensive scorer and multi-dimensional threat is worth the struggles at the other end.

That three-point addition to his game has vaulted Lopez into such a category.

Last season (his first year even attempting threes consistently), Lopez became one of only four centers in NBA history to score 20 points per game, make over 100 threes and do so while shooting better than 34 percent from deep. Karl-Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins (both this past season) and Cliff Robinson are the other three. But what may be most impressive: Lopez did so while playing fewer than 30 minutes per game.

Brook got his efficiency and volume to collide in 2017, and that tandem is a difficult one for Brooklyn to replace right away. Timofey Mozgov will seek to follow in Lopez’s footsteps and make the leap from non-shooter to effective high-usage sniper. Looking at just how many shooting big men there are around the league—and how average even the most highly regarded stretch bigs are from deep—can illuminate how difficult that task might be. Beneath is a data visualization of centers last season and their long-range effectiveness. It charts both their three-point percentage and their number of attempts from deep per 36 minutes:

As you can see, Lopez is high on usage, one of the highest per-minute shooters of the deep ball at the position. That usage never curtailed his ability to hit shots, though, as he still made treys at a higher rate than all but 10 other bigs in the league. The Gasols are the only players older than him to shoot a higher percentage from three.

It cannot be stated enough just how difficult, impressive and downright shocking it is to see a player add a new facet to his game so effectively, especially at this stage of his career. It would be akin to James Harden deciding he’s going to block one shot per game next season.

Moreover, the graphic does not appropriately show just how many big men are sitting in that zero-by-zero quadrant—a.k.a. the guys who don’t shoot threes at all. Less than half of the league’s big men are even attempting the shot reliably, let alone making them. Lopez not only earned the green light from Atkinson, but he shot the ball on par with cross-town rival Kristaps Porzingis and some of the elite names of inside-outside “unicorns” that cause diehard fans to salivate.

A more focused look at the premier shooters at the position shows just well Lopez stacks up against some of the top shooting bigs:

The trend line in the middle is a great reference for comparing efficiency with volume. As the volume swells, the expected efficiency drops, since it tends to be more difficult to keep up a high scoring rate when taking more shots. Those players above the line are extremely rare; only three (Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Karl-Anthony Towns) take more than two attempts per 36 minutes and are above that curve. The trend line levels off as it gets higher, but a drop-off in percentage from those who take four heaves per 36 minutes to those who take six is still expected.

Such a decline is minimized with Lopez, who was still in the top 10 in field-goal percentage among centers who took at least two per game. Perhaps most importantly, and why we’re talking about him as a huge loss, is how the team shot from two-point range because they had a shooter who could stretch the floor. Last season, the Nets were above 50 percent inside the arc with Lopez on the court. While spacing ratings may still have their flaws, the residual effect of adding one more post player at the basket will make easy layups more difficult for the rim attackers in Brooklyn.

There’s no doubt the team got better over the long-term by making the Lopez deal. He’s on an expiring contract and due a big raise, plus he has severe defensive limitations against the most mobile bigs in the league. Russell is a great piece for the future, while wings Allen Crabbe and DeMarre Carroll were absolute steals for an organization that can absorb their contracts. The Nets are in a better place, and any fan excited about that improvement is more than justified.

That doesn’t mean they’ll win more games next season, though, and the offensive lifting Lopez did will absolutely be missed. Let’s pump the brakes on anointing a 20-win team as a significantly improved bunch after having to replace such a dependable, valuable and highly underrated piece of its lineup.

Follow Adam on Twitter @Spinella14.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math, Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

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