All-star caliber big man.
One can argue how accurate that is — Lopez has made one All-Star game in his 9 year career — but that was how Rob Pelinka described Brook Lopez when explaining some of the reasons the Lakers decided to part with D’Angelo Russell as a means to unload Timofey Mozgov’s bloated salary in order to acquire the Brooklyn big man.
It’s hard to know if the Lakers still would have done this trade if a player of Lopez’s quality wasn’t coming back in return (my guess: it would have), but the fact the Lakers are getting such a good player back is meaningful, even if it doesn’t fully erase the sting of losing a young player of Russell’s caliber. Regardless of how much a sect of fans don’t like this deal, it’s done. Lopez is the Lakers’ starting center next year. So, what do they have in him?
Lopez toiled away on the league’s worst team last season, so it might be easy to dismiss his quality and impact on the game. Lopez, though, has long been one of the league’s better scoring bigs and that continued last season. In just under 30 minutes a game last year, Lopez scored 20.5 points while hitting 53.6% of his 2-point shots on 34.6% of his shots from behind the arc. That accuracy from distance wasn’t really a fluke, either. He took over 5 attempts a game and showed some real ability on the left side of the floor and the right corner:
This long range shooting was an entirely new dimension to Lopez’s game last season. As you can see from the chart, he took 387 attempts from distance in 2016-17 after only taking 31 total 3’s in the first 8 years of his career combined. This shooting ability, specifically from their starting C, should help the Lakers in a variety of ways.
First, it will give Lonzo Ball (and every other ball handler) a pick and pop partner who draws big defenders out of the paint. Lopez’s shooting will open up driving lanes all over the floor, but especially out of P&R situations where it will be difficult for teams to play the bracket coverage of chase and drop which has the screeners big man play well below the screen to contain the dribble while the ball handler’s man fights over the top of picks. Teams will have to decide how to either hedge and recover, switch outright, or send help from the wing to close out on Lopez. These simply haven’t been choices defenses have had to make against Lakers teams running the P&R with its previous stable of bigs.
Second, Lopez being able to effectively space to either corner creates an outlet in isolations or pick and rolls run with the PF as the screener. In other words, as much as this might help Ball, the other player who should benefit greatly from playing with Lopez is Julius Randle. Be it via isolation or when operating as the roll man in the P&R, Randle often had to manage a crowded lane with a second big man lurking to contest his shots. With Lopez spacing to the opposite corner, Randle should see more freedom on his drives and his rolls to the front of the rim. And if the help still comes, Lopez offers the type of release valve who will reward that kick out pass.
Beyond the shooting skill and subsequent spacing, Lopez can also be a pure bucket getter as a primary scoring option in isolation. Lopez posted a 29.2 usage rate last season as a fulcrum of the Nets offense. He’s effective as a pure post up player 18 feet and in, offering a nice turn and face game when pushed out to the edge of that range and a nice back to the basket game when establishing the deep post. Lopez shot 52.3% on post ups this past year, 3rd among players who shot out of post ups at least 4 times a game. When the shot clock is at 10 seconds, you can get him the ball and he can create a viable shot for himself. This has value even if it’s not the way the Lakers want to play most possessions.
Of course, even with all these positives, Lopez does have his flaws. He’s not the most fleet of foot big man, hampering him in transition and, more importantly, on defense. He offers next to no switchability defensively and will get taken advantage of in space by most NBA wings with any sort of capable off-the-dribble arsenal. When teams go small, he can be schemed off the court as he’s not going to get on his horse to contest shots beyond the arc nor is he going to prove capable of changing ends in transition and marking quicker players who can rim run or stay wide by running to the corner.
Lopez can protect the rim defensively — he averaged 1.7 blocks a game and when he was the primary defender on a shot players only shot 47% against him. Further, the Nets were better defensively with Lopez on the floor than with him off — though, to be clear, they were a bad defensive team either way. Ultimately, though, Lopez’s deficiencies on this end will be difficult to manage and his pairing with Randle can get ugly even if, in theory, Lopez has some tools to help cover up for him in similar ways many (including me) hoped Mozgov would this past year.
He’s also not a very good rebounder, as witnessed by his poor raw numbers — he only averaged 5.4 rebounds a game, with only 3.8 of those coming on the defensive glass. His defensive rebound rate was only 13.3 last season, which compares more favorably to a perimeter player than it does to a big man (for comparison’s sake, Jose Calderon’s was 13.2 for the Lakers last year). Even if you want to argue that playing with Julius Randle will help mitigate some of these rebounding woes, I think you still need better work on the glass than what Lopez has shown he’s able to provide the last few seasons.
Even when accounting for the ways I think this could go poorly, I still think Lopez will help the team overall. His offensive skills are that much of a positive, he fills a key hole as a primary scoring option in the half court, and he complements some of the team’s key contributors in ways that the holdover Centers simply can’t. The Nets were a better team with him on the floor both offensively and defensively next year and, in theory, he can do similar work for the Lakers next year. Yes, this team will have to live with his issues defensively and on the glass, but the hope is that others can help cover up for his weaknesses while he does the same for theirs. That’s probably asking for too much, but that’s why I said hope.
Lastly, and I won’t dwell on this too much, even though I like Lopez and believe him to be a reasonably good fit, it cannot be overstated that he’s only a 1-year stopgap. The team’s front office spoke openly about wanting to bring in two max level free agents next summer and the only reason that’s possible is Lopez’s contract comes off the books next July. If he’s back on the roster next season at any contract besides the “room exception”, the Magic and Pelinka have failed to add the players they really wanted to. That’s not a knock on Lopez, it’s simply stating the truth.
So, enjoy Lopez for what he is this upcoming year: a really good offensive player who can help the team in a variety of ways for a season management hopes is a transition year into a new era of Lakers success. He’ll get buckets, block some shots, and be a good veteran presence in the locker room. He’s been “the man” before and can moonlight in that role again this season. I won’t pretend to like the nature of the deal that brought him to the team, but I can appreciate him still being a darn good player and believe he’ll be helpful.