The Bucks center blocks plenty of shots. But it’s the ones he allows opponents to take that explain how he’s stopping explosive offenses.
Brook Lopez presents a descriptive challenge: When the Milwaukee Bucks’ center does his job correctly, there’s really no highlight to be found.
The first time the New Orleans Pelicans touched the ball Sunday night, they moved the ball from side to side, testing and probing, only to find Lopez lurking behind every corner. He planted himself in a driving lane on the right wing, then dissuaded a shot on the left. When New Orleans big man Jonas Valanciunas settled for a 17-footer, Lopez knew he’d won. He simply raised an arm, barely bothering to jump, content to let the shot clunk off the rim.
Playing NBA defense has never been a tougher task. And yet against the offensive assault of the 2022-23 season, the 34-year-old has somehow played the best defense of his career. His understated methods, which have helped keep the Bucks in second place in the Eastern Conference as they’ve endured injuries to key contributors, are shot through with the wisdom of experience. He’s become the sport’s preeminent stopper by knowing what to give up.
Lopez seems, at first glance, an unlikely candidate to slow this season’s scoring onslaught, which has seen the highest leaguewide offensive rating in NBA history. He stands 7-feet-1, but he has neither the leaping ability to soar with the game’s marquee dunkers nor the foot speed to chase guards around the perimeter. He spent the first half of his career better known for his affinity for comic books than for an ability to put the clamps on anyone, and missed all but 13 games last year with a back injury.
Now, in his 15th year as a professional, Lopez is making a case as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. He would be the first 30-plus-year old to win the award since Kevin Garnett did so in 2008. To hear his teammates and coaches tell it, nobody better understands the odds underlying every play, the variables of distance and angle that divide a good shot from a bad one.
“Our defense isn’t necessarily about getting turnovers or blocking shots,” Milwaukee assistant coach Vin Baker said of an approach that has yielded just 109 points per 100 possessions. That rate is fourth-fewest among 30 teams, according to Stats Perform, up from 14th when Lopez missed the bulk of last season. “It’s staying pat and knowing, or hoping, that a certain percentage shot will not beat us.”
At the back line of Milwaukee’s defensive scheme, Lopez is the one running the numbers, deciding who to wrangle and who to let roam free. The broad goal is to force opponents into midrange jump shots instead of layups or 3-pointers, but the plan gets modified for individual skill sets. The slightest miscalculation, in a league of elite scorers and analytically optimized schemes, can let a guard slither past him to the rim or a big man sneak behind his back for an alley-oop dunk.
Lopez blocks plenty of shots—2.5 per game this season, second-most in the league—but his main skill, he says, is risk appraisal.
“I try to analyze who’s in the pick-and-roll,” Lopez said. “Say I have a guy who’s come off the pick and he’s not really a passer, or if the big gets the ball, what’s he going to do? Is he looking to score, is he looking to kick it out, is he comfortable making plays? I know where I can play my advantages.”
Challenging a shot can be just as valuable as swatting it, and Lopez far and away leads the NBA in contested shots per game, with 17.2. He credits his ability to step quickly into a shooter’s airspace in part to his recovery from back surgery last December, which has involved doing defensive drills in a vest hooked to resistance ropes. With the refurbished Lopez on the floor this year, the Bucks hold opponents to just 44.7% shooting—a mark that would rank lowest among NBA teams.
It could all help Lopez reach the second All-Star game of his career in February—and if he does, it will be as a very different player than the one who made the first. In his 20s, with the New Jersey (and then Brooklyn) Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers, Lopez was a back-to-the-basket classicist on offense, not the shooter who now makes nearly 40% of his 3-pointers. (His late-career marksmanship gives the Bucks a bonus boost, akin to what a hot-hitting catcher provides in baseball.) On defense, Lopez was a liability, the sort of lumbering giant that quicker opponents isolated and attacked.
Lopez nevertheless possessed rare traits waiting to be utilized. Trent Johnson, who coached him at Stanford, marveled at the precision of his reactions—qualities he attributed in part to Lopez’s high-school volleyball career.
“His eyes follow the ball first, and then his hands and everything else go,” Johnson said. “It’s instincts. It’s not about how quick you get off your feet and things of that nature, it’s about your quickness to the ball.”
Over five seasons in Milwaukee, which include a championship in 2021, Lopez has settled into a club positioned to make best use of his strengths and cover his flaws. He doesn’t need to range into each passing lane or sprint out to every open shooter; Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 7-foot dynamo with two MVPs and a Defensive Player of the Year award to his credit, can take care of that. Nor does Lopez have to try to go step-for-step with smaller speedsters; the tenacity with which Bucks guard Jrue Holiday fights through screens makes his hanging-back coverage viable.
In turn, Lopez’s presence on the back line frees Holiday and Antetokounmpo to be more aggressive. Holiday said that he often purposely pressures his matchups into driving past him, into the territory of the waiting Lopez. In a news conference this month, Antetokounmpo was less analytical: “He is just literally covering our butts on defense every single possession.”
The NBA’s scoring spike has made Lopez’s particular skill set more valuable. Shane Battier, a stingy wing defender during his 13-year NBA career, said that the days of locking down offenses are gone. Scorers are too skilled and game plans too efficient. The shoulder shoves and hand-checks that he used against players like Kobe Bryant have been legislated out of the sport.
Today’s best defenders dissuade, not dominate. “The things that are most dangerous are free throws and rim shots,” Battier said. “Anything you can do to keep people away from those two things, you live with the results.”
The approach takes patience and restraint. It makes sense that, in at least one notable case, it’s an old man’s game.
“It’s maybe taken me longer than some other people to figure things out,” Lopez said. “But you learn from experience, year in and year out, seeing different things and having that knowledge accumulated.”